Grants Pass (Oregon)
One City's Homeless Case

A case from an Oregon city shows that removing people does not solve a social problem.

This essay was first published by AllCare Health. Photo credit: Oregon Department of Transportation via Flickr. C.C. 2.0

In a matter of days the United States Supreme Court will decide Johnson v. Grants Pass. But no matter what it rules, one thing is for sure, it will not solve America’s homelessness and housing crisis.

Johnson is the case the court is reviewing to determine if cities have the right to cite or even jail a homeless person for having a blanket, a pillow or a piece of cardboard when sleeping outside.

Some cities such as Grants Pass, Oregon where my employer AllCare Health is based, want the right to move homeless people out of their towns and end the tent cities which dot the landscape of parks and public lawns. But those of us in the business of helping the unhoused know that homelessness is a housing problem which can’t be fixed by putting people on buses to the next town over or handing out citations and jail time to those affected by it. A systemic and structural problem can’t be remedied by punishing the people affected by it. Homelessness can only be remedied by one thing: solving the housing crisis we face in our nation.

Can you imagine how many homes we could build and how many people we could house if communities made affordable housing the priority instead of punishment? We could solve the issues of people living rough in public and cure the health crisis homeless people face daily, which costs countless millions in tax dollars. We could restore our communities to home ownership, dignity and a middle class existence.

And it’s entirely possible. It begins with recognizing we have a housing crisis and doing what’s necessary to fix it, including diverting money from punishing the homeless to subsidizing affordable homes. Subsidies are how we created the “American Dream” which we successfully did until the 90’s.

If homelessness is to be solved for us and for our neighbors, subsidies, regulation and ingenuity are how.

The University of California San Francisco, in its comprehensive report on homelessness, discovered that more than 90% of unhoused people in a community are people who were once housed there and contributing to community life and they could do it again, if given the chance. And we’ve learned that most unhoused people don’t suffer from addiction or mental illness when they become homeless, 75 to 80%, in fact. Those who do suffer from such maladies can be helped. But it bears noting the fastest growing group of unhoused people are seniors and children, none of whom are homeless by choice or fault. I know we don’t want children and grandparents living and dying on our streets. I know we want people to be housed, healthy and contributing to our communities and country.

I learned a lot when I was embedded in homeless camps as a journalist where I conducted hundreds of interviews. I never feared being harmed and I never was. I traveled much of the country this way meeting teachers, machinists, former factory workers and hard working people who wanted an opportunity. I watched as they rose early, showering with a bucket before work. And I’ve learned that most anyone is a paycheck or two away from being there themselves.

The unhoused are not “other” than us, they are us, average Americans trying to survive a crisis. Many have been dislocated from the effects of climate change like wildfires, floods and tornadoes. Others cannot make it on their social security checks or one income when their partner dies or their relationship falls apart.

And here’s another thing I learned, we cannot solve the housing crisis by focusing on the consequences of homelessness which includes tents and sleeping bags in public. It may seem like the point, but it’s not. The point is: there are not enough homes for people at any price, especially those in the middle income bracket, the working poor and retirees surviving on social security.


The only long term solution to America’s homelessness crisis is to create affordable housing indexed to minimum wage and social security. The crisis will only get worse until we do, no matter what the Supreme Court decides.

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