Homelessness takes many forms and Clatsop County has them all — folks sleeping rough in the outdoors, others basing their lives out of motor vehicles, and many more who must rely on the kindness of family and friends for precarious temporary places to alight.
Our story last Thursday about the problem was shocking. While our county is 19th out of 36 in total population, we are fifth in the number of homeless people. Social service providers and advocates believe Clatsop’s official estimate of 682 homeless is an underestimate and that the actual figure is more like 1,000 or more.
Differing estimates can be explained by factors like the inherent difficulty of counting people with no fixed abode, and by alternative definitions of “homeless.” There can be no doubt, however, that our county has a bigger problem than most.
No one with a secure home would find it acceptable to be without one. On Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs, shelter is one of foundational elements at the base of the pyramid. Without dependable shelter, there is little hope of being safe, maintaining meaningful social bonds, feeling self-esteem or reaching our full potential as human beings. Every day is a struggle when a person doesn’t know where he or she will be spending the night.
Even as the state’s population swells at one of the fastest rates in the nation, Oregon Housing and Community Services reports, “Tens of thousands of people are simply unable to afford these rising housing costs and have had to sleep in shelters, in their cars, or on the street.”
We are comparatively fortunate in having Clatsop Community Action, Seaside’s Helping Hands, active and engaged churches, and others reaching out to alleviate suffering and help people find permanent housing solutions. There are communities — and entire nations — that lack such helpers. But the problem is worsening and our social-support machinery sometimes seems on verge of bursting at the seams. There is a clear need for better understanding of root causes, with early intervention to help the homeless help themselves.
Some homeless are local people fallen on hard times, while others find themselves here after having been squeezed out of Portland and other urban centers. Some may gravitate here for the same reasons others choose to live on the North Coast — it is a beautiful, friendly area with great connections to the ocean and other attractions. But as our story reported, lack of housing, higher rents, decreasing median incomes and a population boom across the state are contributing to Oregon’s increase in homelessness. Our state and nation continue to do a poor job making certain the mentally ill have decent housing. Clatsop County is a microcosm of all these challenges.
Dealing with many of these issues is beyond the capacity of cash-strapped counties and cities. However, with cooperation from the state and federal governments, housing needs are susceptible to some additional fixes: Tax credits and other tools can jump start multifamily housing construction, for example. The state can streamline permitting in ways that encourage affordable single-family housing.
As with so many other problems in our country, local homelessness will not be solved in a year or a decade. On a grand scale, it can be argued that better vocational training, a stronger safety net for those suffering addictions and brain diseases, and changes in approaches to urban planning eventually can make significant inroads in the problem.
For now, here on the coast we need to remain focused on individual cases and help in whatever modest ways we can.