One answer to homelessness is shelter

The problem of homelessness is now being talked about as a West Coast phenomenon. There are homeless everywhere, of course, but the problem is more pronounced in this part of the country, especially the issue of homeless people congregating in downtown areas. Medford is grappling with that problem now.

The crisis is complex. There are many reasons people wind up on the street, and not all individuals have the same needs. But the single most effective step — which has been demonstrated by cities that have done it — is to provide shelter and housing.

The Associated Press reported there are now 168,000 homeless people in Washington, Oregon and California, a figure derived from compiling data from every jurisdiction that reports numbers of homeless to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That number is up 19,000 from two years ago, although weather and different counting methods may be factors in that increase.

But more striking than the total is this number: 105,000 of those are unsheltered. And that number also has increased. The biggest reason for the increase in homelessness is the soaring cost of housing.

Why is this being talked about as a West Coast problem? Because major cities on the East Coast, which have plenty of homeless people, manage to shelter far more of them.

According to The Associated Press, New York City has the nation's largest number of homeless residents at 75,000. But only 4,000 of those were on the streets in a count last January. That's 1 in 20. Contrast that with Los Angeles, where 15 in 20 homeless residents are camping out.

That's because the city of New York provides shelters and dispatches an army of nonprofit workers under city contract who make contact with people on the street and work to get them into shelters. New York has as many people in shelters as all three West Coast states combined.

Yes, it's expensive. New York spends $1.7 billion in city, state and federal money on services to the homeless. New York also has a "right to shelter" law that grew out of court rulings and state constitutional provisions aimed at making sure the poor got government help. Washington, D.C., has a right to shelter policy in winter, and Massachusetts extends that right to families with children.

Oregon has no such law, although the possibility has been discussed in Seattle. Oregon cities could, however, take steps to provide more shelter than they do. Some cities have had success with shelter and housing programs, including Fairbanks, Alaska, and Seattle.

So far, the city of Medford's response has been to focus on exclusion zones and criminal behavior — treating symptoms rather than looking for a cure.

In a report last Sunday by Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann, local advocates said shelter and housing will do the most to reduce the number of homeless people congregating downtown and causing problems for city residents. More police officers, as suggested by Councilman Dick Gordon, wouldn't do much good. The jail is already too small to house any but the most serious offenders, so arresting more people for drinking and urinating in public won't keep them off the street.

Gordon noted that hiring six more police officers would cost about $1 million. Spending $1 million to provide shelter that would get people off the street would accomplish more than arresting them with no jail beds to put them in.

Chad McComas, of Rogue Retreat, says shelter for 100 people would go a long way toward reducing the number of people on the street.

Security and sanitation are big concerns, and it would cost some money to establish shelters, but compare that with the money local agencies spend now dealing with the homeless, and ask yourself whether it makes sense to keep treating symptoms rather than funding a solution.

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