While no one doubts the good intentions of downtown Camas merchants concerned by a perceived spike in the number of homeless individuals sleeping and living in the city’s business core, we must agree with police and advocacy groups and caution against criminalizing the unhoused.
Being homeless isn’t illegal. That was the message from both Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey and Washougal Police Commander Allen Cook, as well as from the executive director of the Council for the Homeless, which advocates for stable housing for every Clark County resident. No amount of jailing, fining, warning or sweeping to some other part of the county is going to change the fact that this area is becoming unaffordable for more and more people.
Here’s what the Council for the Homeless says: “While the reasons for homelessness vary and range from simple to complex, a reality for almost all people who are homeless is that they cannot afford the cost of housing. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, many people spend between 30 and 50 percent of their income on housing. This makes it difficult or impossible to afford other daily living expenses such as food, transportation or medical care.”
Of course, reading these facts and living them are two very different things. One of the things I heard from downtown merchants and employees in the course of reporting the story that appears on this week’s front page is that, although they were concerned for the safety and health of the one obviously homeless woman, they were more concerned about “keeping Camas safe” — especially for the children.
What they didn’t seem to realize is that homelessness isn’t new to Camas or the city’s children. State numbers suggest that at least 50 children attending Camas schools are considered “homeless.” Their families are likely staying with various relatives and friends or sleeping in their cars, so this type of homelessness isn’t as apparent to the merchants. But, make no mistake: There are several families and children in Camas who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness.
As housing prices continue to climb in Camas-Washougal and throughout Clark County, the number of people who can’t afford stable shelter will increase. Some of the unhoused will remain in the shadows, struggling to make ends meet, while others — often those who suffer from mental illness or addiction — will be living on the streets and be much more visible.
I can understand the Camas merchants’ concerns. Visible homelessness is new to this town and, especially for people working at shops and restaurants early in the morning, it can be very frightening to encounter a person suffering from mental illness when you are alone and unsure of that person’s threat level. Worrying that people will scare off customers, steal from your business or even cause physical harm to employees is a normal fear — especially for those who haven’t encountered too many people living on the streets.
What’s not OK is putting all of these fears on “the homeless.” Most unhoused folks aren’t threatening or out to rob your business. Even Camas’ police chief says that the “dine and dashes” and petty thefts merchants worry about are more likely thanks to housed people under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Being unable to afford an apartment or house does not mean you are a bad or dangerous person. I know. I’ve lived it.
In 1999, my husband and I sold everything we owned and moved from Pennsylvania to Newport, Oregon, where I’d scored a job as a newspaper reporter. I was working full-time for about $8 an hour, but it was a tourist town and we struggled to find affordable housing. When it was nice out, we could camp or sleep in our car. But when it started to rain, we had to find another option. For more than a month, we rented a somewhat scary “pay by the night” motel room. Finally, thanks to the generosity of a local merchant who owned a few rental properties, we found a house we could actually afford. Still, we lived for a few months without furniture because the rent ate up about 80 percent of my paycheck.
My experience was, luckily, a temporary blip in my life, but I still understand how fast someone can go from making ends meet to wondering where they’re going to sleep that night. And I know that you can sometimes work as hard as possible — and have a college education — and still not be able to afford basic necessities. I hope Camas merchants will keep this in the back of their minds as they start to learn about homelessness and its causes. And I especially hope, if they are indeed concerned about the unhoused individuals staying downtown, that they will reach out to groups like the Council for the Homeless, who can help those folks find stable and, hopefully, permanent housing.
~ Kelly Moyer, Post-Record managing editor