We Suffer Different Sides of the Same Coin but Are Oblivious to It
It’s the fault of the homeless, it’s the fault of the system. It’s police, it’s the absence of police. It’s government inaction and government red tape. It’s the housing costs, it’s the meth. Businesses are suffering, homeowners are suffering, thousands of people living outside are suffering. Some beg for sweeps of the encampments while others protest them.
Business owners, police, activists, social service providers, homeowners. As if each of us has completely distinct desires and needs and we are somehow at odds with each other. We care so much about our grievances, we forgot to care for each other. Each group identified the villain in their narrative. We have contorted ourselves into pretzels pointing fingers at each other.
First things first, we are Oregonians. We are experiencing the same crisis in different ways. If “resident of this community” was upheld as our primary identity label, with our niche interests secondary, we could unite behind solutions instead of fracturing in the face of blame.
As conditions deteriorate in the city, everyone’s environment becomes unequivocally more hostile. Those of us that remain sheltered notice minor inconveniences. The public bathroom now requires a code, the laundry detergent is behind plexiglass, and catalytic converters go missing. For those experiencing houselessness, the problems are more severe. They are more likely to become victims of violent crime, they are exposed to the elements including a deep freeze and record-breaking lethal heatwave. In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, our citizens died from exposure because they could not afford shelter.
Certain professionals struggle in other ways. Police officers report feeling less safe and having a lower level of job satisfaction. 911 response times are still unacceptably high. People experiencing houselessness are frequently victimized. Piles of trash line the freeways and some city streets. Fast food workers and librarians unexpectedly find themselves on the frontlines of the crisis.
And yet the fact that we are collectively experiencing the same crisis, to varying degrees and in different ways, somehow escapes us. The fact that our city has become bitterly unaffordable for its most marginalized affects even those who manage to afford their rent.
We are so busy arguing the merits of what those people should and should not do that we are failing to act. Should is the conditional. Do is the present tense, the here and now. Our problems are found in the present, therefore our solutions must be, too.
The effect that policing has on crime is irrelevant when it comes to finding immediate solutions. Police officers hired today won’t be patrolling our streets for at least two years. By investing in crime prevention strategies — also called social services — we can eliminate the need for those extra police officers by the time they would even be ready to patrol. And that is something we could do today.
The constant refrain is that houseless people should get a job, or the related sentiment my taxes dollar shouldn’t go to them.
What others should and shouldn’t do matters little in the face of what is.
What is is rampant homelessness. Thousands of people are forced to live, exposed to the elements, without electricity, running water, or trash removal.
What is is a homeowner infuriated by a pile of human feces. What is is a human being in one of the wealthiest countries in the world facing the degradation of having to defecate outdoors. What is is piles of trashing blighting streets where people pay $2,500 for their mortgage. What is are thousands of people who could literally freeze to death this winter.
Everyone cares about the particular symptom that they face. Yet I walk around baffled that no one cares about the cause of these symptoms. Animosity between the housed and unhoused grows, blinding them to their shared oppressor: wealth inequality.
From media accounts to interviews with directly-impacted people, it is unlikely you’ll hear anyone say wealth inequality. Instead, we focus on a symptom of our problem and convince ourselves it is itself the problem.
Drugs are a frequent scapegoat for myriad social woes. Sam Quinones’s recent piece in The Atlantic made waves, implying that P2P meth is to blame for the explosion of homelessness. Yet this analysis obfuscates the most obvious point: homelessness in most correlated to housing costs. West Virginia, as Ned Resnikoff pointed out in a UCSF blog, has the highest rate of drug overdose in the nation and incredibly low rates of homelessness. Because their housing is cheap. Homelessness rates are not correlated to substance use rates.
That is not to say that in Portland substance use is not correlated with houselessness, because it is. Both can be true, contrary to the either/or dichotomous views of the city’s loudest voices. People are both involuntarily subjected to social forces and yet still maintain personal agency. Reality is shades of gray. It requires nuance not found on either extreme of the partisan divide.
It is not us versus them, our tribe versus theirs. It just us. Collectively, there is hurting. There is frustration. There is outrage. But the finger pointing can stop.
Even people that are housed are being affected by our homelessness crisis. The ways in which it affects us vary so greatly we forget we’re all facing the same problem. Housing costs in the greater Portland metropolitan area have doubled as wages stagnated. A lack of a social safety net and comprehensive medical system has cast untold millions to the streets for suffering mental health and/or substance use issues.
As the chill of fall descended on the city, I set out to find my friend Jon. I knew him from back in my heroin days, back in Gresham. He had left a lasting impression in my mind of an ethical, articulate man who frequently found himself in unethical circumstances.
We lost touch through the years. I heard he was living in a tent downtown. Since I purport to serve people that are houseless and people that use drugs, I set out to find him. To talk. But mostly to listen.
Parked in a lot on 6th and Broadway, we finally connected. For nearly three hours, he sat in my car and caught me up on his life.
“This is the fourth time in my life I’ve been homeless,” he told me, “It’s the first time I feel homeless. I have never felt so far removed from society as I do now.” The further removed he felt, the more difficult he perceived it would be to get back. “She looked me in the eye and said ‘fuck off’ when I asked to borrow her lighter. People look at me with disgust. I try to stay clean, washed.” He shook his head in resignation. What more could he do?
He spoke hopefully of getting into Hooper detox and getting off fentanyl. Of receiving the care he needed. He told me a cautionary tale of increasing violence, both attacks against houseless people and an increase of violence between houseless people. “A lot of people have guns these days. It didn’t used to be like that,” he lamented.
His cares and concerns surprised me.
He wished there were more low-barrier ways for him to earn money. Without an address or identification, temp agencies were out. He told me about Ground Score, a program that provides cash stipends for people to work doing trash removal.
“They only take a few people, but when someone gets in, it means they won’t be stealing that day.” The vast majority of people, housed and not, prefer an honest day’s work to theft, he said. The problem becomes when people have barriers — substance dependencies, unwashed clothes, unwashed bodies, a lack of official ID, mental health issues. “Canning” — can recycling for the bottle deposit — has been hindered by the pandemic, even.
He said increasing low barrier income opportunities would make the area safer. Because Jon, a resident of that community, cares about public safety. He cares about public health.
He seemed to be unfazed by his own situation, instead expressing concern for the more vulnerable. He spoke with anguish about how dangerous it is for women to be living on the streets, of rapes, of attempted rapes, of rescuing a woman from a rape. He spoke of his friends with profound mental illness and how helpless he felt when they were having an episode.
Days after my chat with Jon, he was admitted to Legacy Good Samaritan in acute kidney failure. He has since entered treatment, recovery, and housing.
Jon did not say the word wealth inequality, but I heard its effects in his every utterance.
Housed people tend to care about the visual manifestations of homelessness — of trash, of syringes, of encampments. Meanwhile, unhoused people mostly care about surviving the day.
Neighborhood association representatives being interviewed for the local news don’t say the words “wealthy inequality” either, but it underpins their every grievance.
We have allowed the “bottom” of our society, where the poorest of the poor are condemned to inhabit, to become a soggy tent on a cold sidewalk. This reality — what is — is a product of other people’s ideas about what “should” be. Meanwhile, armed security guards try to prevent people from stealing socks and laundry detergent.
Society is decaying around us yet we are so divided that all we can manage to do is squabble, each of us myopic in our own way. Wealth inequality is ripping us apart at the seams. It contributes to our suicide rate, the 100,000 fatal overdoses that happened in the past year and is a primary driver of crime and instability.
Arguing what someone should or should not do will not impact the here and now. If we continue to allow the “bottom” to be abject poverty — no toilet, no running water, no shelter whatsoever — all will suffer. The moral and financial cost to society is already great. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
When you see tents and trash piles, think wealth inequality. When you see armed security guards outside of your once-peaceful grocery store, think unaffordable housing. And remember, whatever aspect of this crisis you struggle with, it is not the fault of the villainous other. While scapegoating individuals may be emotionally satisfying, it’s factually wrong.
Divide and conquer. We are divided. Who is the conqueror?
Solutions are neither out of reach nor unfeasible. Do we care enough to implement them? Wealth inequality, and it’s most acute expression in housing cost, affects not only those at the poorest segments of society. People from other income brackets are becoming increasingly housing-cost burdened, in addition to indirectly experiencing the consequences of rampant homelessness.
Tax credits are often billed as a solution to our affordable housing crisis. As anyone who still drives a gasoline-powered car can tell you, tax credits alone are not enough. As long as real estate development is a prime investment — proven by the fact tax incentives are alluring — profit will be made. There is little incentive to increase the housing stock to meet demand when there is such profit to made in scarcity.
Scarcity — while not inherently incompatible with generosity — often is in practice.
Universal housing vouchers would solve our woes. I envision a program modeled after Section 8, but for everyone. Yes, everyone. But unlike current Section 8, it will factor in differences in income. Everyone’s income gets divided into quintiles. All rental properties get divided into quintiles based on their average rent. People in the lowest income quintile get matched into the lowest rent quintile, and then they pay 30% of their income towards rent, with the government picking up the rest. Second income quintile with the second rent quintile, and so and and so forth. Eliminate the outliers at the high end of the income spectrum and the luxurious end of the rental spectrum, and voila. Everyone is housed for 30% of their income. When there is enough to go around, for everyone, there will be less griping.
Clearly, our housing stock is insufficient to match this program currently. The solution? Build more rental housing. If the federal government can spend billions on incarceration and trillions on war, it can build housing. And with everyone securely housed, our quality of life would increase, and our economy could thrive.
I see the threads that bind us together, for I have ascended and descended through various social positions that often find themselves at odds.
I was an injection heroin user while on my hospital rotation at Providence St. Vincent’s for my EMT certification. “High functioning,” some would call it, I kept delivering pizzas and taking college courses so that I could maintain a steady income stream. A steady income stream meant a steady flow of heroin into my bloodstream. Sure, I thought if I could create a life worth living maybe then I’d finally stop. But my ambitions were far from altruistic.
When a man my age came in by ambulance, admittedly addicted to heroin but claiming profound illness, the medical staff didn’t seem to care. They accused him of drug seeking. I knew immediately he was ill. Withdrawal alone could not explain his pallor. I pled with the nurse overseeing me, a lowly EMT, to care. To legitimize my heroin expertise without outing myself as an imposter, I concocted a story about having worked at the syringe exchange.
It worked. If not sufficient to provoke genuine care on behalf of the medical staff, it at least shifted their tone from one of hostility to one of indifference. When his labs came back, his hemoglobin indicated he needed a blood transfusion immediately. As I suspected, he was truly sick.
Shortly after my discharge from the Air Force, I attempted to join the Washington County Sheriff’s Department. Shortly after that I developed a heroin addiction. A case manager at Multnomah County Jail broke the news to me, “I see here you were a volunteer with the sheriff’s department… I don’t see that much around here. I doubt you’ll be able to do that anymore.” As if I didn’t already know.
While on federal supervision — after having been sentenced to federal prison for my friend’s overdose death — I applied for a job at the very US Attorney’s office that had prosecuted me. (I didn’t get the job.) Nowadays, law enforcement officers are occasionally my colleagues. Yet I still panic when one pulls behind me as I’m driving, always feeling on the precipice of going to jail.
I have lived out of my car and was spared true homelessness only by the grace of friend’s couches. I have been told to spread my cheeks and cough more times than I can count. Today, I work as an editor, councilmember, commissioner, and consultant.
I find myself straddling the line between worlds, between realities that find themselves mutually incompatible. I see that we are experiencing different sides of the same coin because this is a coin around which I have revolved 360 degrees.
Solving a symptom of the problem will never solve the problem. We can address the underlying structural causes, or we can play crisis whack-a-mole while watching society’s demise.
Animosity widens in parallel with inequality. Scarcity motivates people to fear, to hostility. For those that have, they cling desperately to it. In a position to uplift, they instead obstruct. For those that have not, the desperation can be dangerous. The loathing (self-loathing included) contribute to our woes.
I care about us. About the people that are unhoused, about the business owners, about the renters, the people who use drugs, the homeowners, and everyone in between. I care because we are one and the same. One community. One society. And we are suffocating under the oppressive weight of wealth inequality.
The Fred Meyer of my childhood had no armed guards. It’s not that the moral fiber of the country was fundamentally different twenty years ago — it’s that the gap between rich and poor was narrower, housing more affordable. Driving around Tijuana, the prevalence of heavily armed security guards doesn’t strike me as a symptom of a debauched populace, but rather an unjust economy. Yet we as Americans struggle to apply the same observations to our home country.
As a kid growing up in East Portland, I rarely thought consciously of my economic prospects in adulthood. I saw working class families buy homes. As a poverty stricken 17-year-old, I could afford a shared apartment. We knew, vaguely, that opportunity existed should we choose to exercise it.
Fast forward a decade and a half, and we are condemned to go through life with the nagging knowledge that we cannot afford to live in the city of our birth, of our home. With a median home price climbing over a half million dollars, it feels wildly out of reach to me and most of my friends. The mental angst of this is indescribable — and I remember a time that it was different, unsure of that is a boon or an albatross. We are condemning two generations of young people to the anguish of knowing that buying a home — and the intergenerational wealth and security that comes with that — are out of reach for them. It is no wonder we instead choose obliteration.
Mental health, homelessness, suicide, substance use, polarization, property crime, compassion. In public discourse, these things are discussed separately. But they are not distinct phenomena. They are the consequences the widening wealth inequality that is fraying our society. Quality of life is declining for all. We are not each other’s enemy — the real enemy is economic injustice. We can divide in the face of its symptoms or unite to tackle its cause.