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Homelessness Expert: Portland's Efforts Are Admirable, But Not Enough

<p>A temporary homeless encampment known as Hazelnut Grove has popped up in Overlook Park in North Portland's Overlook neighborhood.</p>

Dave Miller

A temporary homeless encampment known as Hazelnut Grove has popped up in Overlook Park in North Portland's Overlook neighborhood.

Donald Burnes wrote his first book on homelessness 23 years ago. He titled it “A Nation in Denial.” When the Colorado-based researcher set out to write a second book on the topic last year, he thought about calling it “A Nation Still In Denial.”

But that’s not fair, Burnes decided. The United States isn’t in denial about the root causes of homelessness. We just don’t care enough to end it.

“I don't think we’ve ever quite changed John and Jane Q. Public’s perception about who the homeless are. So for the most part, people are very negative about the homeless," he said. "I don’t think it’s denial. I think it's ignorance, it's a lack of interest.”

Burnes runs a center for the study of poverty at the University of Denver. He was in Portland last week talking about solutions to homelessness and sat down with OPB. He ended up calling his second book “Ending Homelessness: Why We Haven’t, How We Can.” It’s a collection of essays and research by service providers and other experts, including from Portland.

“I applaud what the mayor is doing here, I applaud what the state legislature is trying to do," Burnes said. "This is some of the most forward thinking that's being done anywhere in the country. But it's not enough.”

Burnes says there is no one answer. Instead, it’s going to take a combination of approaches – public investment in more affordable housing and rental assistance, policies that promote more jobs and higher wages and short term options. Even highly controversial ones.

Burnes last visited Portland 20 years ago. On this trip, he quickly saw the impact Mayor Charlie Hales’ decision to legalize public camping has made. Still, he supports the push to create more organized camps and emergency shelters, even as that pushes them into residential neighborhoods.

“The state of New York has a right to shelter in their constitution. People in New York City have really pushed for implementation of that. So their total homelessness population is something like 88,000 or 89,000 people. But they have a smaller unsheltered population than Los Angeles has, because they insist that they have got to put people into some kind of housing situation," he said. "Shelters ultimately are not the answer. But we don't want people sleeping on the streets.”

A collection of Multnomah County advocacy groups, politicians and service providers plan to put a $350 million bond campaign on the November ballot to build more affordable housing. Burnes says that’s great – but it won’t be enough to make up for lack of involvement by the federal government.

“Congress has done so little on this issue. The investment has not been there," he said. "We cannot expect local government, local nonprofits, the private sector, we cannot expect state governments to solve this problem. The resources simply aren’t there. So the federal government is going to have to step in and step in, in orders of magnitude higher than what they’re doing now.”

Ultimately, though, Burnes says no government policy will succeed until the public mindset about poverty and the people living in it changes.

“I have this crazy idea that we ought to hire a bunch of high priced Madison Avenue types to come in and help develop a real marketing campaign," he said. "The Mothers Against Drunk Driving was a very successful national campaign about drunk driving. And it has accomplished a great deal. We ought to generate that kind of campaign around homelessness.”

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Anna Griffin