Portland-area politicians love to build things. In 2004, Multnomah County, the county in which Portland is located, built a new jail, called Wapato, at a cost of $58 million even though county officials knew they had no money to operate the jail. It has been empty ever since.
Now officials want to spend $60 to $100 million building a shelter for the homeless near terminal 1, a former port facility on the Willamette River. So someone came up with a bright idea: why not use Wapato Jail as a homeless shelter?
One argument against the idea is that most homeless people gravitate towards downtown. But terminal 1 isn’t downtown either. Another is that Wapato isn’t set up as a homeless shelter. But it would cost a lot less converting it to a homeless shelter than to build a brand-new one.
However, the biggest argument against it–one that locals aren’t making–is that another shelter may not be the best solution for the homeless. Homelessness is a symptom, while the problems that have made people homeless differ from person to person. For some it is the price of housing. Rather than build more shelters, Portland should bring down the price of housing by abolishing the urban-growth boundary. For others it is an inability to get a job because they’ve been priced out of the market by minimum wage laws and various regulations.
Other people are homeless because they are unemployable due to poor education (Oregon has one of the worst high-school graduation rates in the nation), being a convicted felon, or other reasons. They need a lot more help than just shelter, and if all Portland does is provide shelter, it is simply perpetuating the problem.
Then there is the argument that providing shelters and other amenities to homeless people simply attracts more homeless people. I haven’t seen any proof of this, but it makes sense. If I were homeless in a city with a terrible climate and hostility to the homeless, I would stick out my thumb and hitch to a more homeless-friendly city such as Portland. “Thanks to its somewhat less barbaric treatment of homeless people than is the norm in many U.S. cities, Portland attracts people in need from around the country,” says one writer.
The solution is not hostility to the homeless but it must be deeper than simply providing free housing. Portland and other cities and states must end the conditions that created homelessness in the first place: high housing prices; poor educational systems; prisons that punish without reforming; and laws that convict and permanently mark people for victimless crimes. Then the best hope for people who are still homeless may be charities that treat the problems and not the symptoms.