Sunday, April 16, 2006

O Give me a home

I always know when the Rose Festival is around the corner when the cops roust homeless people camping underneath the Steel Bridge. With nowhere else to go, homeless folks trudge out to the suburbs or camp in the blackberry bushes on the slopes along the Banfield Freeway. Out of sight, out of mind is our city motto.

Cops don't enjoy this task, they have better things to do with their time, but the city fathers and business interests have decreed that we can't have down and out people with their shopping carts and sleeping bags sullying the image of this fair city. Things might be different this year, though. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that arresting the homeless for "sitting, lying or sleeping in public access areas is unconstitutional." Being homeless is not a crime. What a concept. This has to be a real headache for the Royal Rosarians. What to do with all those homeless folks now?

I did a couple of tours in Diginity Village, a homeless camp, teaching creative writing to the residents. Many had problems of one sort or another, but almost all wanted the chance to make something of their lives. A homeless woman in my class, Laura, told me "don't believe the guys on the freeway onramps saying they want money for food. I've gained 20 pounds here since I moved to Portland standing in one line or another waiting to be fed. What I learned is that everyone is willing to feed the homeless, but they aren't willing to give them a place to stay. There are an estimated 2500 to 3000 homeless people are here in the Portland, maybe 500 more come in the summer when the kids are on the move, but there are only 200 shelter beds total for everyone. Dignity Village hosts another 45 residents and can handle ten more using flop space on the couches. If homeless in Portland and you're a single woman or man, you're pretty much out of luck for finding a safe place to spend the night, ditto for childless couples. Families may find a spot if they're lucky, but if dad's around, he's probably going to end up separated from mom and the kids.

Portland's No Camping ordinance is similar to LA homeless law struck down by the Court of Appeals and may be unenforceable. This year, the Rose Festival may have some unwanted local color (at least unwanted by some), but maybe this is just what is needed to make Portland put some resources into helping the homeless get off the streets.

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