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Nick Fish

Commissioner, City of Portland

phone: 503-823-3589

fax: 503-823-3596

1221 S.W. 4th, Room 240, Portland, OR 97204

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Life on the streets continues to be surreal

Life on the streets continues to be surreal

Life on the homeless front is surreal for the moment. Surreal for the thousands of people shuffling their feet hour to hour, day to day in the cold and rain and snow, moving from one safe and dry location to another. From the doorways to the newly opened warming centers, from wooded areas to under bridges, people experiencing homelessness are stressed and on the move. Survival.


Surreal for the outreach workers on the streets around the clock - dazed and confused from the lack of sleep, and night after night of reaching out to hundreds upon hundreds of individuals and families pushed beyond logical environments - people sleeping in the freezing rain.


Surreal for the many volunteers working at emergency shelters (warming centers) through the Red Cross and the many homeless agencies who have been pushed into overdrive. Surreal for the young volunteer or social work student who realizes for the first time the raw nature of poverty. How can we as a society let thousands of people sleep on our streets, and how can I help change things?


And still, after the cold spell is long gone, and taking care of our fellow neighbors on the streets seems less urgent, the realities of being homeless stay the same - the beginning of another long cold winter, wet and fighting the oncoming phenomena, worn thin and processing the stress of living life on the streets.


The homeless front metaphorically feels like a set of zigzagged trenches with no clear boundaries.


At the bureaucratic level things are moving fast. Mayor-elect Sam Adams and Commissioner Nick Fish's move to create a new housing bureau putting homelessness under another, was a bold and much needed move. Times are changing and Fish's office is positioning itself for the shifting sands. With a new president, a new director of housing at the federal level, and a shaky, but stable 10-year plan to end homelessness, Portland is holding on. With relief possible on the way from both D.C. and Salem, Portland is positioning itself for change.


Still, the general landscape is more complicated than X's and O's. Money generated through tax credits from corporations and tax increment financing through the Urban Renewal Areas to build affordable housing for Portland's poorest folks was in the crapper. There's no sign this will change in the short-term and there's still no sign the economy will turn around in the near future.


But the future is what we must plan for. Poverty in America has always been combated by plans for the future. What new innovative strategy is out over that horizon? It's not for the lack of creativity or expertise in our civic leaders; it's just how poverty plays out in a free market, a rotating cycle of new ideas with little to no resources to address the systematic reasons for poverty and homelessness in the first place.


Until we have universal healthcare and public housing for America's poorest citizens, we will continue to be forced to work towards new and innovative strategies for the future, while people experiencing homelessness simply survive in a series of illogical circumstances along zigzagged trenches where it's hard to tell where one strategy ends and another begins. Criminalized for existing in a surreal place and time.