No easy answers to homelessness

Sometimes, an editorial writer's job can be satisfying. At other times, it can be immensely frustrating.

The satisfaction comes from analyzing a problem and deciding that there is a clear answer: a course of action or a choice of options that makes sense and can be supported with solid arguments.

The frustration comes from discussing a problem that seems insoluble. There is no question that the problem exists, and everyone would be better off if it went away, but there is no clear answer.

Homelessness is that kind of problem. Two recent news stories from two local communities serve as examples.

In Ashland, city officials held a study session last week to discuss expanding the hours of its municipal court and adding video arraignments from the county jail as a way to deter people from misbehaving downtown. The idea, backed by the Chamber of Commerce, is to make Ashland less welcoming to transients and others who disturb the peace, smoke in public where it is banned, congregate on sidewalks and camp or sleep in public places — all violations subject to citations. Ignoring citations can lead to arrest warrants, which can land violators in jail temporarily. 

In Grants Pass, meanwhile, Josephine County officials were preparing to remove benches and tables adjacent to the county courthouse because they serve as a magnet for vagrants, who disturb city and county staffers who were using the area for work breaks. One county commissioner referred to the problem as "dog doo on our welcome mat."

Either or both of these measures might serve to discourage the presence of people who behave in ways that affect the livability of the downtown areas. The plans also might have little or no effect.

What's certain is that neither approach does anything to address the underlying problem: Too many people have no permanent place to live, and congregate in public places as a result.

Targeting the behavior of homeless people may or may not cause them to change that behavior, but it won't provide them with housing, or make them magically disappear.

Removing benches and tables in Grants Pass might make people move elsewhere, where their presence might be just as unwelcome. Or it might not. Getting tough on folks who break the rules in Ashland might or might not discourage more homeless people from coming to town, but it's unlikely to cause those already there to leave.

Homelessness has many causes, among them a lack of jobs, a lack of affordable housing, untreated mental illness and substance abuse. Despite efforts to address all these problems, homelessness remains, and shows no sign of abating.

I don't know what the solution is. I wish I did.

— Reach Editorial Page Editor Gary E. Nelson at

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