It’s so easy to criminalize the homeless, as one columnist I read regularly pointed out recently. They’re lazy, or drug addicts, or both. They scare “good” people. They don’t want to work, they are filthy, and so on.
But as I have learned over the last several months, while some homeless people may fit some of those descriptions, there are many who do not. Just as having a home is no shield against laziness, addiction and criminal behavior, homelessness is no guarantee of it.
Being homeless isn’t easy, no matter how you cut it.
Consider the simple act of going to bed each night. While camping out may be fun if you do it occasionally and in good weather, having no choice but to camp out is something else. A homeless young woman I know discovered the hard way that camping in the rain, even with a tent, is far from pleasant, especially in late November.
And while local shelters made room for at least some of the region’s homeless during the cold snap of December and January, I’m not certain there was enough space to go around. In the Portland area, where services for the homeless are far more widespread than here, at least five people died during those months. In this area, I’m aware of only one death, a man with a job but no home who died in his car in Sisters.
Nor is it a simple matter to have to pack up all one’s personal belongings each morning, including a tent, and find place to stash them safely for the day. There’s a reason so many homeless folks have enormous backpacks and the like: Heavy though a pack may be, it helps you and your possessions stay together. And if it’s uncomfortable to camp in a tent on a cold, rainy night, imagine what camping without a tent would be like.
Which brings up another problem: When it’s bitter cold, there are few places for the homeless to take shelter during the day. Some public agencies allow the homeless in so long as things stay peaceful, but there aren’t enough of those spaces to go around. Some men and women, if they are lucky enough to have bus passes, spend chunks of their days riding Cascades East Transit buses. Some shelters allow their residents to stay during the day, as well.
Homelessness impacts just about every part of a person’s life. With nowhere to cook and little money, a homeless person in Bend must move from place to place looking for meals, from the Family Kitchen to the Back Door Cafe to the Community Center. Getting from here to there and back again can require either a great deal of walking or, if it isn’t Sunday, a bus ride.
Keeping clean can be a real problem. The Community Shower Truck operated by the Foundry Church continues to make regular stops at meal sites in Bend and Redmond, and the Community Center has showers as well as laundry.
But for the homeless with jobs — and yes, there are homeless people among us who have paying jobs — finding ways to stay clean can be especially difficult. A shower truck is fine, if you’re not working when the truck is at a location you can reach. If you work from 9 to 5, however, a shower truck that is available at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. doesn’t quite cut it.
I know that there are people who will read this and wonder why, if life is so difficult for the homeless in Bend, they don’t simply leave. I don’t know why some people stay here, but I am aware of why others do.
Jobs are one thing. There are jobs here, pretty much no matter what your education and skill levels are. If you can’t find work in Klamath Falls or The Dalles, you have a much better shot at doing so in Bend. As for housing, that’s in short supply in much of Oregon, not just here.
Furthermore, some people come here to get away from life situations that are both destructive and out of their control. That, too, may sound like a lousy way to choose a place to live, but if it’s what works for you, you’re likely to take it.
There are no simple solutions to the region’s homelessness problems, and what solutions might be proposed likely would be expensive. Compassion isn’t costly, however, and it can help, if only a bit. Think about that the next time you see a man or woman you suspect is homeless.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, firstname.lastname@example.org