Homeless and Hopeless

Chief Lattanzio sent me some photos today, taken by Officer Greg Newman, of conditions under the bridge at First Avenue and Harrison Street. The pictures show a tent, several mattresses, a suitcase, and various types of litter as evidence that a number of people are using the space as a place to live. I have seen many camps during my years as a city manager, but this one evoked a growing sense of hopelessness over the homeless issue.

My first reaction to seeing these conditions is to ask myself what can be done to help people get out of these situations and into livable housing. Albany is blessed with many compassionate people who volunteer their time and money to help others; but it almost seems like the more we give, the more people we find living in blackberry bushes or under bridges. Simply giving money to individuals only seems to feed addictions and enable the behavior that led to homelessness in the first place. Homeless shelters are definitely part of the answer and so are organizations like United Way, the Albany Partnership, Linn-Benton Housing Authority, Fish, and so many others. Unfortunately, despite the great work being done, the problem persists.

Our inability to solve homelessness is not unique to Albany. I talk to city managers throughout the state and around the country who are experiencing problems that make ours seem small. The reasons for the homelessness epidemic range from mental health problems to people giving up on themselves and society. What happens to people who don’t have the health, skills, or motivation required to earn a living and maintain a home? The answer we have settled for appears to be something like letting the government, nonprofits, and churches deal with it while the rest of us complain about rising taxes and beggars on too many corners.

Education is often seen as the solution to many of our problems, and I’m sure there is a role for the schools in helping prevent homelessness in the future. It seems unrealistic, however, to expect the school system to overcome the many disadvantages children accumulate while homeless. Dealing with these disadvantages also absorbs a disproportionate share of the resources we dedicate to education.

I believe our state, county, and city agencies work well with the many organizations partnering to fight homelessness; and I think that collaboration is the only hopeful sign I see on the horizon. I am grateful to our police officers, firefighters, parks workers, and public works employees who serve, clean up after, and generally try to help the homeless every day. Absent a major improvement in our approach to this problem, the burden of caring for and dealing with the homeless will continue to fall on too few people with insufficient resources.