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Homelessness and the West Coast

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The homelessness issue in the West is quite complicated. Homeless camps have been tolerated in western liberal cities in a way that people from the rest of the country would find rather jarring if you haven’t seen it. Unlike, say, Boston or Philadelphia or Atlanta, the homeless are just everywhere in Portland and Eugene and the Bay Area. And they have a political constituency too that goes back a long time. I remember back in college in the mid 90s when the Eugene City Council passed an ordinance against panhandling in front of businesses and the political response was one of such outrage by the city’s liberals that they repealed it, much to the disgust of business owners.

So there’s a culture of accepting homelessness in the West and that culture attracts those who are living a nomadic life intentionally. But the extreme rise in the price of housing and calamities such as climate change-exacerbated wildfires have made this all the worse. The economic dislocations of the pandemic only added to the problem. Now, the West is effectively becoming like cities in the Global South, where you massive wealth right next to extreme poverty. It’s not good. It’s a complete failure of public policy, one that is deeply connected to the idea that the price of housing is an inalienable right that all Americans who can afford it should receive without interference from the government.

Obviously, this is not a sustainable situation. Santa Rosa is trying to figure it out and this is a pretty good long read on the situation. A quick excerpt:

In creating the Finley Park model, Santa Rosa leaders drew on a few basic tenets. Neighbors were worried about crime and drug use, so the city deployed police officers and security guards for 24/7 patrols. Neighbors worried about trash and disease; the city brought in hand-washing stations, showers and toilets. Catholic Charities enrolled dozens of camp residents in neighborhood beautification projects, giving them gift cards to stores like Target and Starbucks in exchange for picking up trash — usually $50 for a couple of hours of work.

A few times a week, a mobile clinic serviced the camp, dispensing basic health care and medications. Residents had access to virtual mental health treatment and were screened regularly for COVID symptoms; only one person tested positive for the coronavirus during the 256 days the site was in operation.

“We were serious about providing access to care,” said Jennifer Ammons, a nurse practitioner who led the mobile clinic. “You can get them inhalers, take care of their cellulitis with antibiotics, get rid of their pneumonia or skin infections.”

Rosa Newman was among those who turned their lives around. Newman, 56, said she had sunk into homelessness and addiction after leaving an abusive partner years before. She moved into her designated tent in September and in a matter of days was enrolled in California’s version of Medicaid, connected to a doctor and receiving treatment for a painful bladder infection. After two months in the camp, she was able to get into subsidized housing and landed a job at a Catholic Charities homeless drop-in center.

“Before, I was so sick I didn’t have any hope. I didn’t have to show up for anything,” she said. “But now I have a real job, and it’s just the beginning.”

James Carver, 50, who for years slept in the doorway of a downtown Santa Rosa business with his wife, said he felt happy just to have a tent over his head. Channeling his energy into cleanup projects and odd jobs around camp, Carver said, his morale began to improve.

“It’s such a comfort; I’m looking for work again,” Carver, an unemployed construction worker, said in November while cleaning stacks of storage totes handed out to camp residents. “I don’t have to sleep with one eye open.”

Jennielynn Holmes, who runs Catholic Charities’ homeless services in Northern California, said the Finley Park experiment helped in ways she didn’t expect.

“This taught us valuable lessons on how to keep the unsheltered population safe, but also we were able to get people signed up for health care and ready for housing faster because we knew where they were,” Holmes said. Of the 208 people served at the site, she said, 12 were moved into permanent housing and nearly five dozen placed in shelters while they await openings.

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