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Candidates should debate homeless issue

Republican Knute Buehler is making homelessness a centerpiece of his campaign for governor, and the focus is welcome. He has released a seven-point plan for ending unsheltered homelessness in Oregon by 2023 — and while details of his program are open to dispute, Buehler has done a service by elevating this issue to the state level. Buehler and incumbent Democratic Gov. Kate Brown should debate homelessness with the same urgency they devote to education and health care.

Homelessness has tended to be regarded as a local problem, or an urban problem — but it’s an Oregon problem, affecting every county in the state. And at a time when Oregon’s unemployment rate is uncharacteristically below the national average, the number of homeless people in the state is growing. In a meeting this week with The Register-Guard’s editorial board, Buehler cited a 2017 federal report that found a 6 percent increase in the number of homeless people in Oregon over the past two years, and that Oregon has the nation’s highest rate of youth homelessness.

Buehler said he’s talking about homelessness because he’s hearing about it from voters all over the state — they see its effect on law enforcement, health care, education and the quality of life. The scale of the problem demands state leadership, Buehler said, and he’s right. He also showed a firm grasp of the fact that the many costs of homelessness, ranging from increased emergency room visits to a loss of human dignity, can exceed the cost of programs to address it.

Buehler proposes improving Medicaid-funded mental health services, opening 4,000 temporary shelter beds, creating 4,000 spaces in supported housing programs, providing rental assistance for low-income families, expanding affordable housing programs, giving local governments more authority to regulate behavior such as lying on sidewalks, enhancing job training and other measures to address or prevent homelessness. The overarching goal would be to provide people with the means to move toward self-sufficiency.

Brown should offer a critique of Buehler’s plan, and suggest one of her own. Ending unsheltered homelessness in five years is ambitious — but ambition at the state level is surely more useful than indifference. It’s an issue that belongs high on any governor’s agenda.

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