Guest Column

Really, Mike Koonce? To answer your questions in your Nov. 2 letter to the editor:

Q. Why do homeless camps always look like Knott Landfill? Can they not afford trash bags? No concept of sanitation or neatness? Think the world is their personal toilet / trash dump?

A. Many homeless people have brain injuries, physical illness, severe chronic pain, mental health disorders, addictions and/or repeated traumas. Damaged brains aren’t making good decisions all the time. Many are operating at the peak of their current capabilities just to find their next meal, stay alive, hydrated, warm, and moving. Sanitation and neatness aren’t at the top of the list. I’ve watched a woman soil herself repeatedly, not know where her other clothes are because of short-term memory loss, shake with fever and pain, forget that she has a bladder infection and meds to take, not know whether she has Oregon Health Plan insurance, all in 30 minutes. For you to ask that question indicates that you are unaware of why people become homeless and what that’s like. People sometimes extrapolate to another’s intent when they don’t understand behavior. The more we understand about someone else’s behavior, the better we can find solutions that work for everyone.

Q. Lots of stolen shopping carts — do they think they’re entitled?

A. Stealing is, of course, not good. Leaving your stuff to be stolen, look like a trash heap or end up in a landfill is not good. Having a way to keep your gear together, not stolen, and mobile so that you can take it with you (to the grocery store, health care provider, or emergency shelter) is good. People often have to choose between the lesser of two evils. Maybe we can find a solution that doesn’t involve stealing; provides mobility and security for people’s stuff; and keeps it off the streets and landfill.

Q. Is it possible to rehabilitate “these people?” Isn’t it easier to live unhoused without any responsibilities or obligations?

A. Some will likely never be rehabilitated; years of repeated brain, emotional, and physical trauma and/or addiction may be too much for anyone to undo. A humane society would ease their suffering. Addiction is often a result of self-medicating an unaddressed problem; some people are able to shed addiction while getting physical and mental health treatment, despite the hurdles. A humane and pragmatic society would make it easy to access services and support. “Easier to live unhoused” — I invite you to try it for a week. Even in the summer. No one who accesses an emergency shelter, food pantry, emergency room, shower truck, and other safety net Band Aid is having an easy time. They are all suffering, every day. It would bring any one of us to our knees.

Q. Do homeless advocates really want to improve the lot of the homeless? What would these advocates do to justify themselves?

A. Yes, those advocates are sure raking it in financially and living an easy life. In a utopian world where we end homelessness in 5 years, these community servants would likely take a two-week rest and move on to climate-change, our schools’ lack of funding, or the decline of local and independent journalism. Some people just want to make the world a better place. Others prefer to remain uninformed and judge others.

Another way to get your questions answered would be to spend a month volunteering with homeless people, to better understand the variety and complexity of issues facing some people, and envision how we might solve our interwoven problems. By seeing it firsthand, you may conclude that Bend and Deschutes County can’t fix it all. We can and will respond, but we will be unable to stop the wave of people who become homeless and then stay homeless. “We” started this ball rolling when we closed many state mental hospitals 30-40 years ago without seeking or funding a replacement safety net. We made it worse by allowing health insurance and pharma companies to drive reimbursements, make care unaffordable for most Americans, push addictive meds, and make obscene profits.

Until we have accessible responsible health care for all, including brain health care, with early intervention and treatment, we will be offering a lot of palliative care and addiction services. We’ll argue and make progress regarding camp clean-ups, relocations, and permanent shelters, all of which are necessary to treat the symptoms of our system. But we won’t make a big dent in preventing homelessness, mental health crises, self-medication, and suffering without physical and mental health care for all.

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Shannon Mara lives in Bend.

(4) comments


As someone who has experienced houselessness in Central Oregon, I just want to say thank you, Shannon. I assure anyone who thinks that people choose to be houseless that it is NOT a glamorous lifestyle that someone chooses. Is it easier than jumping through a million systemic hoops to become housed, or sober, or access necessary mental health services? Maybe, but it's a daily struggle and constantly living in survival mode, which isn't good for anyone anywhere ever. I appreciate you, Shannon.


Thank you, Shannon Mara, for offering this perspective. Let's stop scapegoating and blaming victims, and join together to provide the assistance so badly needed.

Transitory Inflation

Thanks for taking the time Ms. Mara. That letter was trash.


Thank you for the eloquent and educational reply!

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