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Homelessness is an American issue

The statistics in a new report were bad enough: 21,340 students in Oregon public schools were homeless in the last school year; 1,929 pre-kindergarten students were homeless; 524 students — about one out of every 10 — in the Bethel School District were homeless, 900 students in the Eugene School District, about one in 20, were homeless; 480 students in the Springfield School District were homeless, also about one out of 20.

But it was reporter Alisha Roemeling's story of one boy, Luke Perrin, age 7, that broke the hearts of some Register-Guard readers.

Luke and his father, Robert Perrin, had spent the night in some bushes behind a Walmart store, with only a blanket and a tarp for shelter. The father was faced with telling his son that he was going to have to leave his beloved McCornack Elementary School in west Eugene because they were catching a bus to Corvallis in hopes of getting space together in a shelter.

Stories like Luke's are a painful reminder of the faces behind the numbers. They're a reminder of the thousands of stories of heartbreaks those statistics represent. They're a reminder that homelessness remains a hidden problem for many — the classmates or the fellow employees who don't go home but to a shelter, if they're lucky, or to a car or a tent if they're not.

They're a reminder that thousands of children in Oregon are growing up without adequate shelter, food, clothing or security. And if the humanitarian aspects of this are not enough, well, consider the economic costs in the coming years and decades.

It's understandable that Oregonians are feeling donor fatigue after years of being asked to help people who lost jobs and homes during the recession.

The problem is, even a rising economic tide is not lifting all boats. While new jobs continue to be created in Lane County, not all are highly paid. Some of the jobs that went away during the recession aren't coming back, and not everyone has the skills or experience needed to land the new ones.

Wages have remained stagnant or have fallen in a number of industries, but living costs have not. Oregon's median family income in 2015 was about 1.6 percent below 2008, while the median rent increased 9.8 percent during that period.

And the safety net for people like Robert Perrin has developed some gaping holes. The wait for public and multifamily housing programs can range from one to four years, depending on size and location. Some waiting lists, such as the one for one-bedroom apartments in the Eugene-Springfield area, have been closed because waiting times are excessively long, says the Housing and Community Services Agency of Lane County.

Given all this, it's no surprise that nonprofit groups and social service agencies are being swamped by people needing shelter, including families with children and vulnerable teenagers who are on their own.

The Lane County Poverty and Homelessness Board, with the help of its local partners, has tripled the number of emergency shelter beds available from November to March, to 90, but says more are needed.

St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, which operates a number of shelter programs, including for families with children, expanded virtually all of them this year but is struggling to keep up with the growing demand.

"We thought we had done a lot by expanding capacity before this (winter) season," spokesman Paul Neville said. "We thought we were in good shape, but we were maxed out even before the weather turned cold."

There's a waiting list for the InterFaith Night Shelter, which rotates homeless families among local faith organizations. Additional slots for families living out of their cars have all been absorbed, with other people being turned away. And there is a continuing shortage of shelter beds for families with children. As the need continues to grow, not just locally but across Oregon and the United States, people like Neville worry about the future — with good cause.

Spending to alleviate homelessness grew under the Obama administration, but not by enough to compensate for decades of neglect and cuts in spending on anti-poverty programs that began in the Reagan era, when the budget for public housing and rental assistance was cut in half, to about $17.5 billion. The country went from having a surplus of 300,000 low-cost housing units, some of them admittedly substandard, in 1970 to a deficit of 3.3 million units by 1985, according to a report from the National Housing Institute. Federally funded job training and affordable child care programs also were wiped out during the 1980s, putting more pressure on the poor. It was during that period that homelessness exploded in America, with many of them Vietnam veterans, children and laid-off workers.

Today, states and local communities struggle to meet a need that outstrips the available resources. There are some successes, such as the housing projects St. Vincent de Paul continues churn out, and a package of bills to alleviate homelessness passed in the last legislative session.

But local nonprofit groups trying to find shelter for people like the Perrins desperately need more support — donations and volunteers. The Oregon Housing Alliance is preparing more proposals to bring to the Legislature, including protections for tenants and incentives to build and retain affordable housing. These proposals will need support. But state and local efforts can only apply a Band-Aid to a gaping wound, they don't have the resources to heal it.

What is needed above all is recognition at the congressional level of a continuing national crisis in affordable housing. Voters need to insist on action. This isn't a Democratic or a Republican issue, it is an American issue.