Yesterday I attended a Progressive Salem meeting that featured remarks by two highly qualified City Council candidates, Vanessa Nordyke and Trevor Phillips. (Nordyke has been appointed to the council to fill a vacancy, and is seeking a full term in the May 2020 election.)
Homelessness came up in both audience Q&A's and the initial remarks. What struck me loud and clear is a simple fact that shouldn't be overlooked even though it is obvious:
Homelessness is a complex problem that will require action at all levels of government, plus the private sector and nonprofit organizations, to find viable solutions.
Sure, the City of Salem needs to do its part. A controversial sit-lie ordinance apparently will be discussed by the City Council on November 25. A Salem Reporter story describes the basics of the ordinance.
The Sidewalk and Public Space Ordinance — known informally as “sit-lie” — is effectively a handful of proposed laws bundled together.
The ordinance would ban sitting or lying on sidewalks and other public rights-of-way from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. It would also ban leaving personal property unattended on public property during those same hours. And it would ban tents and other structures from sidewalks at all hours.
Salem police would have to warn violators on first offense and could write a ticket for a second offense.
If those crimes occur within one of Salem’s crime prevention districts — also known as “exclusion zones” — a person could be banned from that area. A person who ignores the ban could be arrested for trespassing.
Salem has two such exclusion zones: north Salem and downtown. Numerous crimes can lead to a ban in those areas, from violent crimes to a minor violating curfew.
Though the proposed sit-lie ordinance is getting a lot of attention from both advocates for homeless people and businesses affected by the homeless, obviously it would have little or no effect on the key homelessness issue: lack of homes for those who need one.
The City of Salem doesn't have enough money to maintain current services and programs, much less solve our local homelessness problem. Yet we have to do what we can, while realizing that action at the county, state, and federal level also has to occur. The situation is similar to that of global warming, albeit with a human face.
Meaning, Salem needs to adopt a Climate Action Plan that lays out ways our city can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Yet global warming is such a vast problem, every city, every state, and every country on Earth has to do its best to deal with the problem.
Ditto for homelessness.
What's strange about homelessness, though, is how the problem of people lacking homes is so severe at a time when an economic expansion is 11 years old and unemployment is very low. Thus it seems that income inequality and a lack of government resources are more to blame for rising homelessness than a lack of jobs.
As was noted at yesterday's meeting, many people are employed at low-paying jobs that leave them extremely vulnerable if something like bills for a car repair or medical expenses hit their pocketbook.
Exacerbating the homeless problem in Salem is the presence of a state hospital and penitentiary. The United States' mental health and prison policies leave a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. We don't treat people as well as we should when they enter a mental hospital or prison, and when they leave, those people don't receive necessary support.
So many end up on the street.
What to do, then? Well, it seems to me that our country needs a major change in direction on many fronts: health care, social services, environmental policies, minimum wage, immigration -- to name a few. The Trump administration isn't to blame for all of the ills in the United States, but it has made many problems worse, rather than better.
Thus one of the most important things advocates for the homeless need to do is work for progressive change at every level: local, state, national. Yes, conservatives have a role to play in combatting homelessness, just as they do in other problem areas.
But the private sector and market-based approaches aren't going to cut it when it comes to putting people in homes who now are living on the street. Government action is key, just as it is in the realm of health care and environmental protections. The United States doesn't lack the money needed to address homelessness. Our country lacks the political will.
Which only elections can address.
Somehow we've got to break the gridlock that's preventing the United States from becoming a genuinely caring, compassionate democracy. Oregon is better off than many states, since progressives control the Governor's office and both houses of the legislature.
Even here, though, good intentions are more plentiful than concrete action. It's time to say No more talk! when it comes to dealing with serious problems, homelessness being one of them. If Democrats control the White House and Congress after the 2020 election, this will be great news for people lacking a home.
However, the gap between bemoaning a problem and doing something about it will remain unless we, the people, demand more and better from our elected officials. The Salem City Council needs to do its part. Real change, though, has to happen at the national level to make a serious dent in homelessness.
Does anyone fail to believe that a President Biden, or a President Warren, or a President Sanders would do more to help the homeless than a President Trump? Well, some people do, but they're wrong.