Stumbling onto a Cure for Homelessness

From the Spirited Reasoner’s vantage point across the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, it’s easy to witness the tragedy of homelessness first-hand. Over the past few years, clusters of tents have mushroomed into tent cities. At first, these “communities” sprang up in areas that were hard to discover—shadowy corners beneath highway overpasses, densely wooded areas, and behind abandoned buildings. Then, as tent dwellers became bolder and more desperate, homeless communities made their way downtown and into residential areas. Evidence of drug addiction and crime became rampant in those areas.

City and State officials seemed powerless to stop this phenomenon. Extremists on the far right encouraged policies that seemed cruel: simply tear down the tents and force the occupants to go somewhere else. (Go where? Doesn’t matter. Just get them out of my face.) Extremists on the far left encouraged policies that seemed more humane, but which actually exacerbated the problems: provide services to the homeless communities wherever they happened to spring up, which only encouraged more homeless people to move in.

Spirited Reasoners thought the answer might lie in a common sense, two-pronged approach. First, used abandoned space to construct hundreds of humane dwellings—e.g., “pod houses”—equipped with access to heat, electricity, running water, and bathroom facilities. Second, and tightly linked to the first step, enforce no-camping bans in a manner that would result in the relocation of all tent-dwellers from unauthorized zones into the newly constructed dwellings. Of course, intensive social services and police protection would be necessary for those newly built residential areas, but the cost would be worth it in comparison to the current blight.

What’s happening in Portland, however, is something quite different from the Spirited Reasoner approach, though the result may end up much the same. In an “only in America” action, a group of ten Portlanders with disabilities have sued the city, claiming that homeless tents are blocking their access along city sidewalks. Now facing the prospect of serious federal enforcement, the City of Portland is finally taking action to clean up the streets.

Two years ago, if anyone had suggested that it would be the Americans with Disabilities Act that forced Portland officials to take meaningful action, Spirited Reasoners would have called that suggestion insane. There are times, however, when creative approaches supersede those that are merely spirited or reasonable.

Here’s a tip of the cap to those ten plaintiffs for being the catalysts for bringing Portland’s homeless population, and its longsuffering citizenry, some much-needed relief.