Yesterday I walked around downtown Salem before and after my 6 pm Tai Chi class.
On Court Street I saw several people lying on sidewalk benches, completely covered in gray blankets that I assume had been given out in anticipation of the next round of cold, snowy weather.
On Commercial Street I saw others in sleeping bags lying on the sidewalk in the doorways of businesses that had closed for the day.
My core feeling was, How can it be that the United States is so uncaring about citizens living on the street?
It just seems so wrong, so very wrong, that while our country has made a commitment to educate every child at public expense through high school, has gone a long way toward guaranteeing access to health care for everybody (though Trump is doing his best to undermine the Affordable Care Act), and puts considerable money into making sure few people go hungry, there is no comparable societal consensus on making sure everyone has a home.
Education, health care, having food to eat -- most would say that these are fundamental human rights. Shouldn't having a place to live also be a fundamental right?
It seems crazy that along with every other city in the United States, Salem has to struggle to find a solution to homelessness mostly on its own. Sure, there are federal housing programs for low-income people. But if these were a cure-all, I wouldn't have seen people sleeping on the sidewalks of downtown Salem.
I have friends who are wonderfully committed to helping the homeless. They volunteer at warming shelters when the weather turns cold. They do what they can to feed the homeless and are part of efforts to provide more affordable housing.
All that is praiseworthy. I deeply admire the many people in Salem who are dedicated to making the lives of the homeless better.
However, as positive as these efforts are, I keep thinking that individual acts of charity are as limited in solving our country's homelessness problem as they would be if children lacking a school had to rely on the "kindness of strangers" to get an education.
In his recent State of the Union speech, President Trump spoke about how he doesn't want the United States to become a socialist nation. To which I respond, OK, but we can emulate success stories of countries like Finland when it comes to combatting homelessness.
Here's some excerpts from a February 2018 World Economic Forum article, "How Finland solved its homelessness problem." Basically, it is the same approach used successfully in Utah: give people a home! (duh...)
In the last year in the UK, the number of people sleeping rough rose by 7%. In Germany, the last two years saw a 35% increase in the number of homeless while in France, there has been an increase of 50% in the last 11 years.
These are Europe’s three biggest economies, and yet they haven’t solved their housing problem. Across Europe, the picture is much the same.
Except in Finland.
There, the number of homeless is steadily decreasing. So what have they been doing differently?
The Finns have turned the traditional approach to homelessness on its head.
There can be a number of reasons as to why someone ends up homeless, including sudden job loss or family breakdown, severe substance abuse or mental health problems. But most homelessness policies work on the premise that the homeless person has to sort those problems out first before they can get permanent accommodation.
Finland does the opposite - it gives them a home first.
...Housing First works so well because it is a mainstream national homelessness policy with a common framework, according to Juha Kaakinen, Chief executive of Y-Foundation, a social enterprise that provides housing to Housing First. It involves a wide partnership of people: the state, volunteers, municipalities and NGOs.
“All this costs money,” admits Kaakinen. “But there is ample evidence from many countries that shows it is always more cost-effective to aim to end homelessness instead of simply trying to manage it. Investment in ending homelessness always pays back, to say nothing of the human and ethical reasons.”
Salem is trying to manage homelessness because seemingly this is the only option available to City officials. The City of Salem budget already is facing multi-million dollar deficits. It's very unlikely that local revenues would be enough to implement a Housing First approach here that would end homelessness.
A statewide Housing First program in Oregon might be feasible. But not in the foreseeable future, given other legislative priorities. So it seems that the best bet is for Democrats to take back the White House and both houses of Congress in the 2020 election.
The United Staes is rich enough to provide a safety net for everybody in this country. What is lacking isn't money, but the will to do this. My hope is that the current Trump era is just a four-year detour on the road that leads to genuine compassion for the less fortunate among us.
Like the people I saw sleeping on benches and sidewalks last night.