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Pointing fingers won’t solve homelessness

Almost a month ago, we ran an editorial about the Medford City Council’s suggestion that other cities in the area pitch in to help address the problem of homeless people congregating downtown and elsewhere, prompting complaints from businesses and others. We said the problem belongs to Medford because that’s where the homeless are in any great numbers, and Medford needs to find solutions without expecting help from other communities.

Last week, Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann looked into where the homeless are, and his findings bear out that fact: They are predominantly here and in Ashland, not in Phoenix or in Eagle Point or in another smaller town.

That prompted several comments on social media blaming the homeless for being homeless in the first place — “laziness,” “freeloaders,” “uneducated,” “unwilling to learn a skill” — and blaming Medford for providing food and shelter, which presumably “attracts” more homeless people.

Except that the homeless were here before those services were provided at the level they are now. The services responded to the need, not the other way around.

The reality is, most of those categorized as homeless are from this area already. And while some homeless people have substance-abuse problems, addiction and/or mental health issues, many are simply unable to afford housing. Often they have been forced out by steep rent increases that outpace their income, and despite maintaining jobs, they can’t put together the cash necessary to secure a new place, even if they could afford the rent.

From 2008 to 2015, family median income in Oregon decreased 1.8 percent, while median rents increased 9.8 percent. It’s no wonder that the number of homeless people is increasing.

They are in Medford and Ashland not because those communities offer shelter and food programs, but because state and county services are there, as well as public transportation. If food and shelter services went away tomorrow, the homeless would still be here. They have no place else to go.

Yes, the Greenway is a popular spot for encampments. It’s unfortunate that a feature that makes Medford a nice place to live also serves to attract people others would prefer not to encounter. But I don’t hear any public outcry demanding that the Greenway bike path be eliminated.

National statistics show the single biggest factor in homelessness is the lack of housing. That may seem laughably simplistic, but it’s important. The loss of housing causes homelessness — not mental illness, not drug abuse, not “laziness.”

The answer has to involve building more housing at prices people can afford. I don’t know how we accomplish that, but pointing fingers at the homeless and those who try to help them is not the way to do it.