Our View: City's homeless strategy off to strong start

If you watched Monday’s City Council meeting looking for a fight, you would have been disappointed.

An expected showdown between downtown business owners and Portland’s homeless advocates turned out to be not much of a debate at all. Instead of tearing apart a report written by a citizen task force calling for more capacity and better coordination of services for people in need, representatives of the Portland Community Chamber and the Portland Downtown District applauded the task force’s hard work and accepted their recommendations, with some reservations.

Which is how it should be. There may differences of opinion on the details, but all sides have a common interest in Portland remaining a safe place to live, work and visit, and no one would be well served by ignoring what by all measures is a growing poverty in the heart of the city.

Portland, like most cities, has usually addressed the impacts of poverty when faced with an emergency. City Councilor John Anton pointed out that means responding in the least effective and most expensive way to a problem that just keeps getting worse.

By the time someone lines up at a homeless shelter, chances are they need more than housing. Drug treatment, mental health counseling and job training are the kinds of things that, along with adequate affordable housing, could keep people from needing to sleep on a mat in a crowded shelter.

The task force has proposed more emergency shelter beds, and three new permanent supported housing complexes throughout the city. This is not a strictly local problem, and it should not be the burden of Portland taxpayers alone. Some of the business owners and residents of the Bayside and Parkside neghborhoods have legitimate concerns about concentrating too many services in a small part of town.

Those are the kinds of debates that should take place, not arguments about whether the city should withhold benefits to get rid of homeless people. Those arguments tear communities apart.

"Every person has value and every person has something to contribute," said Mayor Michael Brennan. "If we start saying that only certain kinds of people are OK, that’s how we lose our way as a community."

We can debate the details, but overall support for the idea that Portland can work with partners in and outside government to house people in need while aggressively attacking the causes of homelessness is encouraging. The City Council meeting was not the fight some people were expecting, but it might have been something much more valuable – a new start.