Our View: Services aren't what adds to homelessness

Portland business leaders should be less worried about what would happen if the city did step up its response to homelessness than what would happen if it didn’t.

Portland already attracts people from around the state and from other states who need housing and other services. As the homeless population expands, the city has more to lose by leaving people out in the cold than it does by trying to find them a place to stay.

Tonight, the City Council will be asked to accept the report of a task force. The report has drawn a response from the Portland Community Chamber, which raises valid concerns about the strain a growing homeless population puts on the city’s public and private sector.

The chamber questions whether expanding services would create more capacity, making the homelessness problem worse, not better.

But that critique is off the mark.

Portland’s rapidly expanding homeless population is not growing because services have become more generous. The expansion coincides with the expiration of federal stimulus funds and budget cuts from the state. The problem doesn’t go away when the services decline. The chamber’s other major criticism is that Portland is home to the homeless of many communities both in and outside Maine. They argue that the city could reduce the need for services by making it less attractive to people from other places.

But that assumes that these travelers would not show up or stay if they were denied a night in a shelter or a meal at a soup kitchen. It’s just as likely that more people would sleep in parks and find other ways to eat, increasing panhandling and petty theft.

If the homelessness problem were as easy to solve as not hanging out a welcome sign, Portland could end it completely without spending any money.

Unfortunately, and as the chamber acknowledges, it is a complex public policy question that will require a multifaceted response. As the chamber memo points out, there are many different ways that people become homeless, and a family with a temporarily unemployed parent does not need the same help as a single man with a mental illness.

The city should not be worried about doing too much, but too little.