Homelessness: a call for compassion
Keith Haxton, 27.12.2012 16:42
Ashland has a homelessness problem. The magnitude of concern about the problem was demonstrated in Ashland’s recent city council elections, as the subject garnered comment from every candidate and almost all civic organizations involved. However, I witnessed a clear and profound lack of understanding amongst most of the people who spoke on the issue. Thus, I think that defining the problem is of some importance.
Ashland has a large transient population. This population is ever-fluctuating and difficult to assess, as it is practically impossible to distinguish from Ashland’s much beloved and celebrated tourist population. Transients and tourists behave in exactly the same way and for all but one distinction are the same people. Both come to Ashland of their own accord, tour the sites, spend their money, and leave. The only contrast between transients and tourists are how they look and how much money they possess. This is known as class distinction.
Some transients are buskers. They are people who play musical instruments or perform for money. These people are most often on a tour of sorts that takes them from place to place. Not to dismiss Ashland’s resident busker population, which is notable, but the majority of buskers on the streets do not consider Ashland their permanent home.
There are also transients who travel through Ashland on their way to other places. Some of these people stop in Ashland to panhandle for food or gas money, and they sometimes take advantage of the limited free meals and charitable services that are generously provided by organizations and residents of Ashland.
Both buskers and panhandlers stop here more as a result of Ashland’s artistically vibrant culture, as well as its kind and tolerant populace, than as a result of their own economic hardships. I would not classify them as a part of Ashland’s homeless population any more than I would classify a tourist as a resident. Transients deserve to be treated with with compassion and dignity, but in terms of Ashland’s abilities and responsibilities, I define Ashland’s homeless population as people who have set up a persistent residence in or around the city.
The differences between transient and homeless people are lost in the eyes of those who don’t pay close attention to the issue. Most conflate and confuse the two terms and, sometimes accidently, misrepresent issues when discussing the homelessness problem. If homeless people and transient people are one in the same, there is no reason to believe that Ashland has a significant role in creating or solving the homelessness problem. This line of thinking leaves some lacking any sense of ownership of the issue, and all too often leads to the simple solution of “throw the bums out”. The importance of a sense of ownership cannot be overstated. Many who are homeless in Ashland did not arrive here in such a condition.
Since the economic recession began in 2007, many residents have found their wages stagnant, reduced, or absent as a result of being laid off. The city of Ashland eliminated more than 20 full-time employee positions in 2008. Many Ashland teachers were laid off in 2009 and the years since, in conjunction with budget shortfalls and school closures. Southern Oregon University has laid off at least a dozen employees in this year alone. In total, Ashland has more than 800 unemployed workers and an unemployment rate of 8.1%.
Ashland has below-average state and national incomes for families and households. It has a high percentage of residents under the poverty line, ranking in the top 20% of all Oregon cities, with more than 3,500 residents and 400 families in poverty. Additionally, more than 25% of Ashland residents under the age of 18 are in poverty.
Combine Ashland’s high cost of living, which is far above state and national averages, with the fact that over 80 percent of homes in Ashland have rent or a mortgage, adding in poverty and the ever-increasing cost of utilities, and you have the perfect conditions for a homelessness crisis. More than 200 Ashland homes have been foreclosed on since 2008 and nearly 100 homes did not pay their rent last year. However, foreclosures have not driven down the cost of living. Instead, some of the houses have been converted into vacation homes, often illegally, and many hundreds of others remain unsold or off the market.
In January 2012, I participated in a survey of homeless people in Ashland, which was commissioned by the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD) and organized by local volunteers and activists. According to the report, there are 213 homeless people in and around Ashland, more than 70 of whom are children in grades K-12. The overwhelming majority, more than 150, are white men. 178 live within the city limits. Only 28 claimed to be homeless by choice, while more than 70 stated that their homelessness was a result of unemployment or inability to pay rent, which is also called abject poverty.
What is it like to be homeless in Ashland today? According to city law, it is illegal to be homeless and sleep in Ashland. This ban on sleeping is an affront to basic human rights. By forcing poor people to leave, hide, and live as second-class citizens, the law violates our nation’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
A few compassionate residents are working to provide shelter for those in need, and have provided a no-frills winter shelter for the past few years. This shelter alone cannot and will not solve Ashland’s homelessness problem, as it currently has a maximum capacity of 20 people.
This winter shelter will bring poor and struggling people, including families and children, in from the cold, and it could be the start of something more. Although Ashland residents did not cause all the problems that created our homeless population, we can create the solutions. As a person who has been homeless in Ashland for more than 20 months, I know that solutions don’t come easy, but they can be realized if we work together.
To get involved, contact Heidi Parker of the Homelessness Steering Committee at (541) 482-1520 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keith Haxton is a community organizer and advocate for social justice. He is on the board of Options for Homeless Residents of Ashland (OHRA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing, mitigating, and overcoming homelessness and poverty.