Bend, I’ve heard more than one person, including a couple of local politicians, say in recent months, has a homelessness problem because we’re just so darned nice to them. You know — we give money, we provide services, in general we’re just a welcoming bunch of folks and so the homeless flock to us.
On the heels of that story is this one: Homelessness is a result of mental illness, and if the mental health community were able to do the job right, the problem would be much smaller. While better care would reduce numbers, no doubt, it certainly would not eliminate them.
Bend has more homeless people than it did a decade ago, to be sure. But so do Medford, Portland, Salem, even Harney County, where the number of unsheltered men, women and children has tripled since 2015. In Deschutes County that number has risen by a bit under 20 percent. In fact, homelessness is up over most of the country.
I find it difficult to believe that generosity is what draws homeless people to far-flung Harney County, where the per-capita income was $22,795, in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Nor do I think that Deschutes County’s homeless population is here because our per capita income in the same period was $30,117.
Instead, our homeless neighbors, most of them, were our housed neighbors only a few years ago. So what’s changed?
According to the state’s Housing and Community Services Department, two or three things stand out.
Perhaps most basically, very few houses or apartments, or much of anything else, for that matter, was built anywhere in Oregon during the Great Recession and beyond. Thus, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 31,029 building permits for housing of all types issued in this state in 2005. By 2008 that number had dropped to 11,676 and it reached a low of 6,868 housing permits issued in 2010.
At the same time, the state’s population grew to 3.84 million in 2010, up from 3.62 million in 2005. As of 2017, Oregon’s population stood at about 4.14 million and home-building permits, according to the Census Bureau, had not returned to their 2005 high.
Finally, according to housing and community services, while median family income in Oregon decreased by 1.8 percent between 2008 and 2015, rents actually increased by 9.8 percent. That change is borne out by figures from the 2018 Point in Time shelter count. This January about 70 percent of Deschutes County’s homeless were housed here previously.
There is no doubt that many homeless people here and around the country suffer from mental health problems, including substance abuse problems. What’s less clear is whether or not mental health issues actually led to homelessness in a majority of cases. Rising rents and falling wages, after all, are not caused by mental illness. And while mental illness may not necessarily cause homelessness, homelessness surely makes mental health worse. Moreover, homeless women are more likely to have mental health problems than men are.
That said, those homeless today, with or without mental health problems, no doubt had fewer of the resources many of us draw on when times are tough. Their family ties may have been weak, and they may or may not have had friends to call on.
So what would draw homeless people to Central Oregon? Many of those who come here, a friend of mine who pays attention to such things tells me, come for the same reasons many of the rest of us do. The weather’s relatively mild. The air is clear and the scenery worth looking at. And, while you may not be able to earn enough to afford a place to live, jobs at the low end of the skills scale are here aplenty.
Bend is nothing special where homelessness is concerned. Some communities have more homeless per capita; others have fewer. In the end, what might set us apart is how we decide to deal the issue.
— Janet Stevens is deputy editor of The Bulletin. Contact: 541-617-7821, email@example.com .