Empathy is essential during housing crisis

Homelessness has been a serious issue Portland has grappled with in recent years, and it has worsened amidst a national housing shortage as well as a fentanyl addiction crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role in the crisis when unemployment, substance abuse and mental hh issues spiked. This resulted in many people being unable to pay rent, and getting evicted. So how has Portland responded to the crisis?

According to the City of Portland’s website, homelessness increased by 65% from 2015 to 2023 (1,887 to 6,297 individuals). During the same period, Portland invested $1.7 billion in affordable housing services, opening 4,608 units. The funds supported preventative measures, including housing subsidies for 35,550 Portland residents, with 13,190 receiving permanent housing assistance in 2022. However, the average wait time for affordable housing units is five years, which has hindered the efforts to provide enough housing for individuals in need. 

While Portland may have invested considerable funds in affordable housing services, the number of units has not kept pace with the increasing homeless population. Overall, Portland’s policies in response to the crisis have ranged from weak and ineffective at best to inhumane at worst. 

Perhaps the most controversial policy Portland implemented was banning homeless encampments in June 2023. Encampments can be unpleasant to witness, but it is not wise to demolish them to make the neighborhood “prettier” or prevent crime. Banning encampments is not only inhumane, but it worsens the problem, as homeless people are forced to migrate to other areas of the city constantly. It is as if being homeless is becoming illegal, all while there is still a housing shortage. 

I have witnessed the hardships homeless people have endured on the streets of the Portland metropolitan area, from Sellwood to the city center. While the area Lewis & Clark is situated in does not have as many homeless people or encampments as other parts of Portland, you can still find encampments around the Fred Meyer store down the hill. I remember on one cold winter night, I waited for the Pio Express at the Fred Meyer bus stop and saw a homeless man sleeping a few feet away from me on the sidewalk. Next to him was a spilled cup of cereal, but what especially worried me was he must have been really cold, as he only had a sleeping bag and a light flannel sweater for warmth during the 30-degree night temperatures. 

While seeing homeless people on the streets can be disconcerting, I generally feel safe and do not worry about them harming me. Yet the media loves to dehumanize homeless people by portraying them as violent individuals and painting Portland as a dangerous city that no one should venture into. Unfortunately, some of my relatives have listened to this propaganda and have told me not to travel solo, fearing that a homeless person would harm me. While I brush these irrational fears aside, I am disappointed in people like my family members who dehumanize homeless people after falling for anti-homeless propaganda. 

Despite the dire situation, I believe that there are some things that both the city government and the public can do to combat the homeless crisis. For the city government, I think that it should invest more in supportive housing and other non-profit organizations dedicated to helping the homeless, rather than take a tough-on-crime approach like banning encampments. 

As citizens, we too can step up to help the homeless. We must should not dehumanize them and should be more empathetic towards them. Like everyone else, each of them has different stories to tell about how they ended up on the streets, whether it was losing a job or fleeing from domestic violence. We can get involved in secular or religious organizations that feed or house the homeless, whether through volunteering or donating. If we follow these steps, we may be able to combat the crisis. 

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