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A new strategy to address homelessness

I’ve recently read the excellent three-part Julie Akins series on homelessness, as well as the equally insightful Mail Tribune editorial (Nov. 26) on the same subject. This subject is probably the most multi-faceted socioeconomic challenge we face.

There are many groups and individuals whose opinions we could draw from for layman’s perspectives regarding this, but I prefer professional sources when available. One such source is Useful Community Development, a website maintained by a group of four experienced consulting city planners in the Chicago area. Their practice covers the entire spectrum of city planning. Included is homelessness, ranging from dimensions and causes of homelessness to systematic solutions to end homelessness.

I encourage anyone interested in the topic to browse it, but particularly those who make public policy. Many of the conclusions drawn in the MT and Ashland Daily Tidings articles concur with what these consultants have written. A generally unrecognized aspect is that homelessness actually is a city planning issue, which is why it’s so important to start putting it in that perspective. It’s also important for any interested party, but particularly policy-makers, to take some time for some field work.

Rather than relying on third-party complaints from constituents, I think policy-makers should spend observational time at local shelters in order to gain a first-hand perspective of the issue and put a human face on it. I say this because this has been my experience. At the urging of a friend a few years ago, I started volunteering occasionally to help serve evening meals at some of the shelters and other gatherings. Up until then, I had seen the issue in one narrow, negative dimension. The exposure motivated me to learn more about what was causing the issue to exist in the first place. I’ve come away much better informed. I don’t regard myself as an ‘expert’, but at least I have some knowledge based on experience.

Pick up any newspaper along the Interstate 5 corridor and you’ll see articles about how towns are "combating" homelessness concerns. There’s no consistency, no planning, no vision. The can just continues to be kicked along I-5, with everyone thinking they’ve developed the best mousetrap. An organized standardization must be developed. The initial step should be for the affected cities to approach the Oregon League of Cities for a series of strategy meetings, to write a standardized, equitable and legal plan. The Useful Community Development website could serve as a neutral outline model.

A large-scale logistical effort must be funded and given oversight from the top down. In this instance, the final step would be buy-in and commitment from the state, predicated upon League of Oregon Cities intervention. It’s apparent (and unanimously supported by qualified sources) that shelter, mental health and re-entry (when feasible) are the most immediate and critical concerns. None of this comes without cost, but the cost of pursuing the present disorganized course will be far greater in the intermediate and long term.

No homelessness essay would be complete without mentioning local policing resources, tactical and legal considerations. As mentioned earlier, we’re looking at a planning issue and should start treating it that way.

Cities enact ordinances that wouldn’t exist if not to target homeless populations, with the obvious intention of "clearances." One must ask if this is an efficient use of resources, let alone fair, consistent or legal. One thing’s for sure: Look at any cities’ court records regarding homeless-connected violations and you’ll see a money-losing operation for the city. Add the cost of increased police positions for this purpose (often funded by increased property taxes), and we obviously all lose.

— Andrew Kubik lives in Ashland.