Thursday, June 29, 2017

Down By the River: The Homeless in Portsmouth

About a dozen or so homeless people are living in substandard conditions in a so-called “tent city” along the Scioto River in Portsmouth. It is apparent that many of homeless residents panhandle by day to eek out little more than a basic existence. They are a reality that draws both sympathy and criticism from other local residents.

It is important to understand that a 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health indicates that even those who have deep knowledge in this area and who work directly with the homeless often have difficulty assessing patterns and needs. The diversity of stories of those affected, along with the often-invisible nature of life on the streets, complicates attempts to quantify the true size and nature of the homeless population.

The best current estimates by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (2013) put the national population of homeless at 610,042 – 65% of them, or 394,698 persons, were living in shelters or transitional housing of some sort, while the rest, 215,344, were living in places such as abandoned buildings or cars, or under bridges.

HUD estimates 12,325 of these homeless individuals live in Ohio.

(John Wihbey. “Homelessness in the United States: Trends and demographics.” Journalist's Research. December 04, 2014.)

Of course, major concerns to the public include health issues, sanitation, safety, and the impact on local businesses. No doubt, the homeless population presents a problem. But, let's be honest – some folks simply abhor being confronted with the faces of those they judge as bums who have created their own squalid conditions. Though small in number, these homeless folks draw the ire of citizens because of their shabby appearance, their itinerant nature, and their constant begging. In other words, people view them as pariahs.

Those who make such judgments fail to acknowledge the devastating impact of poverty, mental health issues, and drug addiction on the homeless population. For instance, many people experiencing homelessness are unable to earn an income due to a permanent or temporary disabling condition. And, of course, what employer is really going to hire a person who fills out a job application while in the throes of homelessness?

There is no doubt homelessness and poverty are inextricably linked. Consider the ever-rising costs of food, housing, childcare, healthcare, and education. Think about these sobering statistics: the National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that the 2013 Housing Wage was $18.79, exceeding the $14.32 hourly wage earned by the average renter by almost $4.50 an hour, and greatly exceeding wages earned by low income renter households.

(National Coalition for the Homeless. 2014.)

In Ohio, a wage of $15.00 an hour is required to afford a 2-bedroom rental home, and 72 hours of work a week are needed to afford that same home.

So, since housing absorbs a high proportion of income, less-fortunate individuals cannot afford adequate shelter. As the National Coaliton for the Homeless relates, “If you are poor, you are essentially an illness, an accident, or a paycheck away from living on the streets.” If you live in an area where joblessness is high and wages are low like Scioto County, the problem greatly compounds.

We can rue the existence of the homeless because of any potential problems they may cause. We can debate how best to help them – should we offer them money, food, or shelter? And, if we do so, we can wonder if we are simply enabling their derelict lifestyle. We can support programs that provide them proper assistance. Or, as many Christians often do, we can pray for their better well-being.

The one thing that all of us must do is acknowledge the presence of the homeless among us. By doing so, we also accept that they are us – they are the poor and the hapless of our own society, and we still must treat them with the respect and the acceptance we are bound to afford to all human beings. Indeed, to think we must excise them from our good town – simply push them away to another neighboring environ – is not only unrealistic but also inhumane.
Consider the pity and the assistance most people willingly offer to a stray animal and pit that against the common feelings most have for the homeless. Then, consider the reasons people live on the streets. Do you comprehend that some person(s) or some thing(s) likely drove each destitute person to his transient existence? Contrary to belief, these souls are not exercising the common understanding of free will. It is much more complicated as each itinerant has his own personal history and his or her own problems with which to deal.

If you automatically assume that a person's homelessness is his or her own fault or a result of their own failings, you deny those homeless people who have already sought assistance. Imagine the pain of being judged inadequate because of a problem or a series of shortcomings that sent you into a downward spiral. Almost all of us have experienced misfortunes that had the potential to destroy our lives. All of us must consider how the assistance of others prevented a similar catastrophe in our times of needs

It is understood that the homeless must abide by the same laws and rules that govern others. This must be made clear to everyone in our society. The question is this: “Are we going to assist the homeless or are we simply going to charge them as being interlopers and deny their basic humanity? We all know the right answer to this question. Without a doubt, the homeless here in Portsmouth need significant outreach, so much so that providing them some type of housing is just a first step. They need health screening, drug counseling, mental health counseling, and employment training.

One possible immediate solution to alleviate at least some sanitation concerns would be to open the public bathrooms at Tracy Park. Couldn't a student worker be hired to supervise the cleaning of the facilities there? I understand the concerns associated with unlocking those restrooms; however, I also know that any problem requires allocating resources – time, money, and effort.

You say the homeless are a significant problem? Any such problem requires work not only by public officials but also by the populace. Hatred and disgust beget more hatred and disgust. Toleration leads to understanding, which, in turn, leads to stronger association. That association breeds inclusion.

They – the homeless – are us. That means that we – even the most respected and well-to-do of usare part of the problem. I am a firm believer that the human will operating with the grace of God is the strongest asset to help solve anything. And, by the way, the old adage applies: “No one said it was going to be easy.”


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