Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 12.10.09

The Crime of Homelessness
Powerful wealthy continue their assault
by Jerry Smith

After the horrendous hate crime in Eugene of torching homeless black James Lemmon, we need to pay attention. Being homeless is not safe. The failed government we have experienced has led to many thousands of our citizens being homeless. One homeless advocate knows of 18 homeless persons who have died of exposure.

Abandoning fellow Americans is the crime committed by our government, called homelessness. Leaving people without shelter because they are poor is a crime of our broken society. Homelessness is a hate crime of the rich against the poor.

For about 20 years Oregon was governed in the interests of rich people. The rich gave themselves great tax cuts so they could “provide more jobs in Oregon.” Instead they sent jobs overseas and pocketed great profits. This ruined the economy.

The rich reached the maximum of damage against the poor by ending the welfare program called General Assistance, taking away a pitifully small rent payment for more than 3,000 poor disabled Oregonians, sending them into homelessness. Homelessness hits persons with disabilities the hardest. Finally the last injury was the initiative that defunded needed taxes passed by the Legislature for ongoing education, human services and public safety. We are soon threatened by another initiative that must be passed with a yes vote or more needed services will be lost.

Early on our legislators hated alcoholics and substance abusers. They excluded them from all help, leaving them homeless longer than most.

Then they hated taking care of the mentally ill and mentally incompetent and left many mentally disabled people homeless. 

Then they hated taking care of abused children and teens and left thousands of Oregon school children homeless.

Then our jails filled with people we hated, and we turned them out into our community, homeless.

Beyond these more easily recognized populations among the homeless are people who in recent months just lost their jobs.

All of our programs to help the homeless are filled to capacity. Now our communities criminalize people sleeping outside and living in vehicles.

We need safe, legal nighttime places for the homeless Oregonians. 

The one “homeless shelter” in Eugene is strictly religious. It excludes many, including the disabled (who have no place to go). Many who have stayed in the shelter do not experience it to be safe. 

Our state, county and city do not even provide temporary shelters in Eugene or Lane County.

We need legal, safe parking places for those homeless people who live in vehicles. We have only very few and very temporary legal parking places for those who are poor. Of course it would be better if we had a warm, dry place indoors.

We need supervised buildings for all mentally ill and mentally incompetent homeless people. Many are wandering the streets and face a police ban from being in downtown Eugene.

Most citizens think all homeless people are substance abusers and alcoholics. Such people are just a visible minority. Even so, it is better for the community by far if the minority of acting out substance abusers and alcoholics are not left homeless in Eugene and Lane County. They endanger other homeless persons and do damage to the rest of Eugene.

We need buildings opened for those who have lost jobs, lost apartments and lost homes. They are the newest homeless people In Eugene.

We need supervised overnight shelter for children and teens who do not feel safe “going home” to violence and abuse.

In October, 14,593 people receiving Food Stamps in Lane County had zero income — no money for rent. How many are homeless? We just don’t know, but it is way more than the 2,000 that has been the official guess.

Rain and cold are now upon us. We are our “brother’s keeper.” The new Legislature began to take back some of the tax cuts to the rich. More fair taxes are needed. Let’s also get and use stimulus funds to provide temporary and permanent housing and jobs. We can do it.

Jerry Smith, MSW, of Eugene is a retired social worker and a longtime volunteer and advocate with programs that assist the homeless.