How we let homelessness become a nationwide crisis

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency.

Before becoming director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA), Jimmy Jones taught Western Civilization as a professor. When asked to explain the crisis of homelessness in Salem, he reverts to his background in history and sociology.

Starting around the 1980s, he explained, the federal government cut funding to social services, expecting state and local governments to pick up the slack. In many places, state and local governments either couldn’t afford it or wouldn’t prioritize it.

“So the greatest irony is the problem was government generated,” Jones said. And, he added, “It’s government perpetuated.” 

The system as a whole is underfunded. But social services funding, when it arises, often has restrictions, which may or may not be informed by the realities of homelessness. This makes it difficult for those in homeless services to serve individuals with the most acute needs.

Homeless families and veterans often receive more state funding, even though they’re on the low to moderate end of need and aren’t as often chronically homeless, Jones said. 

Another significant point in the timeline, he said, is the state deinstitutionalization of mental health care in the 1960s. State funded institutions weren’t replaced by increased local mental health infrastructure. People who struggled with mental illness weren’t moved into new services. They were left without services.

For those who lived in state hospitals, he said, “A lot of those people went outside and stayed outside and never went back.” 

For the following generations of people struggling with mental health, services didn’t materialize, either. In Oregon, an underfunded and underserved youth mental health care system allows mental illness to reach crisis levels in adulthood. Some of them end up homeless, too.

Even for physically and mentally healthy individuals, the risk of homelessness looms. For lower income individuals throughout the U.S., the cost of living has increased faster than wages. Federal data shows that 39 percent of American adults would struggle to deal with an unexpected $400 expense. 

In Marion County, the lack of affordable housing is a constant refrain. 

According to Housing and Urban Development (HUD), fair market rent in the Salem area for this year is $761 a month for a one bedroom. 

An unscientific search of websites like Zillow, Trulia, and – the same kind of search someone looking for housing might do – turns up only a handful of apartments at or below fair market rent. Often, the search filter for “income restricted” or “low income” turns up zero results. 

Fallyn McCarty, who works directly with homeless individuals in her outreach work for the HIV Alliance, sees a lot of older adults without shelter for reasons of affordability. One man in his 70s, she said, “gets $600 a month for Social Security. What can you buy? Where can you live?” 

“So he sleeps on a park bench.”

The staff at ARCHES, a local homeless services agency, complicates the picture of housing affordability and availability further. Their agency works alongside the Salem Housing Authority to find apartments and provide rental assistance for homeless individuals through the Homeless Rental Assistance Program (HRAP). Even if they can find a unit with a reasonable rent, there are other roadblocks to placing people in housing. 

“It’s the right kind of housing for the person – that’s what we don’t have enough of,” Ashley Hamilton, ARCHES’ program director, said. “It could be an elderly individual of limited mobility. How many first floor bedroom units are there that are ADA accessible internally and externally” as well as affordable? 

Another wrinkle: Is the apartment eligible for Section 8 vouchers for low income individuals, which HRAP tries to transition their clients to after a year or two? 

And another still: Will the landlord work with someone with poor credit, a criminal record or an addiction? 

The answer, often, is no, shutting out a sizable portion of people who are currently homeless or tottering on the edge of homelessness. 

“I think it has been a total collapse at all levels that has led us to this particular moment,” Jones said. “And since nobody wants to blame themselves, everybody struggles to see that.” 

Instead, he said, the blame shifts to those who are homeless, for making bad choices or for choosing to be homeless. 

“If you’re going to start blaming the homeless for their condition,” he said, “we’re not going to make any progress because you’re looking in the wrong direction.”