Once again we are seeing more than a thousand homes lost to a hurricane in Louisiana. This time around, some wise investments in infrastructure saved New Orleans, but what happens to those outside the new levee systems who have lost their homes? Americans are remarkably generous to these storm victims, but many are less generous to the victims of the economic storm.
In Eugene alone more than 2,000 people have lost their homes because of the economic collapse. Is there a plan to save them? When Occupy Eugene (OE) started, its participants exposed the plight of the homeless. When OE offered safe refuge, it placed people from all walks of life in close proximity to the hundreds of homeless helped, and we learned that most of the homeless are articulate, decent human beings. They are the same as us, and they deserve the right to sleep in safety.
Opportunity Village is the first installment of a plan put together by many of the most experienced and knowledgeable homeless advocates in the city, including many from OE. The first stage would help the most vulnerable: the families with children who should be in stable neighborhoods near the schools they attend. The Opportunity Village study group determined that the ideal site would be near the urban center, near bike and bus transportation, would have access to utilities and would be a safe and secure location positioned near supportive neighbors. The City Council is going to look at various potential sites and will meet again this fall to discuss the best location. If this pilot is successful we should set up additional villages in other locations and in vacant buildings to provide the opportunity for hundreds of others to get back on their feet again. This is a wise investment in our community’s future.
The victims of both the hurricanes and the economic storm will need help to get going again. Don’t we have the same moral obligation to invest a small amount to provide a safe and sanitary place for the homeless to sleep? If done correctly, the right plan will improve the city and also save money.
Los Angeles County has about 51,000 homeless on any given night. The county invested in a pilot project called Project 50 that provides permanent housing for 50 of the most vulnerable to help them break their cycle of dependence and reenter society. This investment resulted in a savings for the county of $120,000 a year. Project 50 supporters are advocates of the so-called housing-first approach, who say a permanent roof provides the stability chronically homeless people need to get their lives back on track. It helps to have an address to look for a job.
In August, about 200 people met at the Unitarian Universalist Church to learn about Opportunity Village Eugene and to listen to Mark Lakeman give a presentation about Dignity Village, which provides shelter for about 150 in Portland. The villagers there created their own cute structures from recycled or donated materials. It only costs the residents about $3 a night per person and they provide those funds, so it doesn’t cost the city anything but the use of the land. Lakeman believes that being a member of a village is critical to being able to transition to a more stable situation. Villagers need to have an attractive location with a gathering place where neighbors will feel comfortable coming to visit, so they can get to know the real people rather than fear the stereotype.
New Orleans learned from the experience of Hurricane Katrina and made the investments that protected the residents from this latest storm. Eugene can learn from the experience of Los Angeles and Portland, and invest in helping victims of the economic storm to regain their footing. If your home had washed away or been destroyed in a forest fire then would it be any worse than losing your home because you became ill? What help would you need to get started again? At a time when we are releasing violent criminals from jail because of budget problems, can we afford to be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars having the police rousting the homeless? Or should we invest in making the city more livable for all?