State washes hands of homelessness

If you can find it, dig your Tuesday paper out of the recycling pile and check out the first three pages. On them you will find stories about the Medford post office closing at night because of ongoing issues with the homeless; a judge who recused himself from a case involving the homeless because he — like so many others — has had his own run-ins with homeless people; and a homeless man appearing in court because he stole from a store and then threatened employees with a blood-filled syringe.

Salem, we have a problem.

While everyone’s story is different, the homeless — or travelers or transients — who are creating the most serious problems often are addicts or mentally ill, or a combination of both. With facilities lacking to deal with either the mentally ill or the chronically addicted, communities are busy putting Band-aids on wounds that won’t heal.

Local communities can step up to deal with lawbreakers — Jackson County residents may get that opportunity if the county puts forward a measure to build a much-larger jail. Currently, there are no addiction treatment programs at the jail because so few stay there long enough for treatment to work. If we dramatically increased jail space, the county should pledge to set aside enough beds to deal with the frequent-flier addicts who now face no consequences, and get no help, in dealing with their issues.

You can’t put people in jail for being mentally ill. And in this state, where commitment laws are among the strictest, it’s a major hurdle even to get someone who’s a threat sent to a mental health facility.

Local communities cannot be expected to build and staff their own mental health units. That should be the job of the state, or even the federal government. But suggest that and you’ll no doubt get a response along the lines of, “and where do we get the money for that?”

Southern Oregon was once in line to get a mental health facility — and in the view of the Willamette Valley-centric Legislature, it did when rule makers decided Junction City was in Southern Oregon. The 174-bed facility opened in 2014, and by 2016 was being proposed for closure by Gov. Kate Brown, making it rather clear where mental health facilities stack up on her priority list.

The homelessness issue has many facets. There are people who choose to be homeless and mind their own business; there are people who are forced into homelessness by economics. Those are not the people who are creating problems in communities across the state and the nation, often while suffering greatly themselves.

Is it a matter of money or a matter of will that we can’t seem to address mental illness and its massive effects on Oregon’s livability? According to the Legislature’s own reckoning, the adopted budget for the 2017-19 biennium is $74.39 billion, an increase of $2.569 billion from the 2015-17 budget. Yes, much of that money is in dedicated funds and can’t be spent elsewhere, but somebody dedicated it.

Perhaps while the state spends $74.39 billion, somebody could decide that it’s time we dedicate ourselves to addressing mental illness.

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