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Can The Homeless Make a Community?

By Steve Stajich


The news from last week’s G20 Summit seemed to demonstrate that even that union of nations can have a hard time sustaining a sense of global community… especially when one of its key members is a pouty little boy who wants his way and is willing to risk making America look small to the world to get what he wants.

Better news about community seems to be coming out of Portland, Oregon.

There, citizens are working together to support an effort to get homeless people off the streets and out of the rain. The Kenton’s Women’s Village in Portland is a village of small shelters, each less than 8 by 12 feet, that have no heat or air conditioning or plumbing. Sanitation is a shared rest room and each small building has solar panels that can sustain powering a cell phone. Perhaps most importantly, each tiny house has a door that locks. That alone might possibly be one definition of a “home.”

On June 10, 14 female residents moved into the tiny houses. Did it ‘take’? 18 days later two residents were gone; one for disruptive behavior and another who returned to the streets because of what she described as verbal abuse and constant conflict. Wouldn’t that be about right for any grouping of strangers finding themselves in a new “community”?

As this column has noted over the years concerning our own homeless populations, people that become “homeless” are not always in that category for similar reasons. There are those struggling with addictions, mental health problems, and what we might reasonably call anti-social behaviors. Portland’s bold experiment is hoping to create a community where before there was rootlessness and no dry roof over their heads.

Kenton’s Women’s Village is part of a larger grand plan to fight homelessness and even supportive Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler concedes that projects like the Village are “not the best that we can do.” But the effort is something that “has never been done before” according to Executive Director Richard Birkel of Catholic Charities of Oregon which co-manages the Village.

And yet there is reason to believe that even tiny houses gathered to make a community can offer hope and change. Gathered in the Village, homeless women are now in contact with outreach workers and social services agencies to help them access health care, financial services, and ultimately permanent housing. One woman at the Kenton Village says she “quit doing dope” to get into the Village and just celebrated three months of sobriety from methamphetamine.

The Portland newspaper The Oregonian published an editorial conceding that while Kenton Women’s Village was a tiny step toward sheltering Portland’s massive homeless population (up 9.9 percent since 2015), that it was a step worth celebrating. One of the residents has decorated her tiny house with photos of her family, stating emphatically “I love it.” One immediately wonders where that family is in terms of help for her but again, the community we call “homeless” is one consisting of people with a wide variety of issues that have brought them to the streets.

The Oregonian editorial observed that some citizens of Portland’s Kenton area, despite a vote of approval of 2-1 for the Village, remain skeptical and are not wrong to feel that way. Residents do sometimes languish in facilities meant to be short-term, halfway measures to turn the tide of homelessness. The editorial said the city must “address any issues that arise, stick to its timeline and show Kenton – and other neighborhoods – that being part of the solution is something they won’t regret.”

Here in Santa Monica we’re currently looking at plans for our downtown that, to my knowledge, do not include anything at all like the Kenton Women’s Village even though Santa Monica has historically shown plenty of will to engage with the homeless. To the degree that public radio show host and Spinal Tap band member Harry Shearer would open his radio program with the slug line, “Santa Monica, the home of the homeless.” Exactly how he meant that, well, you’d have to get with Harry.

Neighborhood organizations in our city have wrestled with the situation of having homeless people sleeping in or near their driveways and alleys to the degree that the problem nearly became the glue holding these groups together. Could our city support something like Kenton’s Village and create another full-bodied step in moving toward the day when anyone who wishes to come out of the weather and off the streets could always find a dry, safe bed? Is there a “right” for all humanity to at least have a safe place to sleep? Portland seems to be pushing ahead of us a little on that kind of thinking. We can be just as proud of being “The home of the homeless” as we can in being Silicon Beach or an international tourist destination. Our progress should never ignore a community just because its members are a complex, multi-dimensional group with issues that complicate our integrating with and helping them. As an accomplished woman once said, “It takes a village.”

Steve Stajich, Columnist

in Opinion
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