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When four people die from hypothermia within ten days on Portland’s streets (a story newsworthy enough to have gained even international attention), you know that something about the system is broken.

The question is what that “something” is. For if you can’t accurately identify the problem, there’s no way you’re going to fix it.

I would point to two things:

1. The city’s inconsistent/contradictory/confusing approach toward the homeless and housing policy. We hear our guests expressing their frustration over this all the time. On occasions, they sent up camp somewhere and authorities look the other way. When police officers come by to check on them, it’s just to see that they’re doing okay. But then the city goes through a crackdown phase, and the very police officers that might have been checking on their welfare a week before are supervising a team to “sweep” their camp and get them to move along. Research psychologists have shown in lab tests that if you want to trigger an anxiety response in a subject, an ideal way of doing it is to be inconsistent and unpredictable in one’s interactions crime sceneso the subject is never sure when then next blow will come. (Indeed, this is a technique used to break down someone under torture.)

What does that have to do with people dying from hypothermia? Simple. The city is to be commended that the cold snap led it to open enough warming centers to keep its vow “not to turn anyone away. But folks on the streets need to be able to access those centers. And as Ree Kaarhus with Boots on the Ground PDX has said, “[P]eople on their own have often been moved so much by police or neighbors that they seek out isolated locations . . . to feel safe. But being on your own can be dire.”As for the city’s general housing policy, we have to ask how development has gone so off-the-rails that housing is becoming unaffordable to an increasingly large segment of our citizens. Whereas the city seems good at speaking a progressive agenda, one cannot help but feel that developers have a larger influence on decision-makers than the simple needs of those on the streets. Take the South Waterfront, for instance. That development was supposedly contingent upon its including a certain percentage of affordable housing. Whatever happened to that?

When there is not enough housing and temperatures dip low enough, people will freeze to death.

2. Our woefully inadequate mental health delivery system. The traditional model for ministering to those wrestling with mental health issues is based on the most illogical of assumptions: that it is the responsibility of the affected person to seek out treatment, when the very nature of mental illness often incapacitates one from taking that initiative. Even those living in economically stable circumstances have a hard time being the initiative-taker when they have mental-health needs; when they do seek treatment it is because they have the encouragement of a family member or close friend. But what about those who have no personal support-systems, such as those living on the streets? Their tendency is just to become more and more withdrawn and isolated until they can be lost altogether.

                If the system is to be truly responsive, it needs to turn itself inside-out. It needs to acknowledge that it is the treatment-providers who need to take responsibility for taking the initiative, and not putting that burden on those who are suffering. It’s not the folks on the streets who should be making their way to the therapists’ offices, but the therapists who should be going to where the afflicted find themselves on the streets.

 

If you’ve been keeping track of what we’ve been doing at Nightwatch, you’ll recognize that these two diagnoses are not something we recently arrived at. We’ve been trying to create a response to the victims of this broken system for a while now. Through our Mobile Hospitality Center we seek to serve those homeless clusters that may have become isolated, far from services. By bringing aboard a mental health specialist we are taking the initiative to meet people’s needs where they are, without requiring them to seek it out.

It’s certainly only a stop-gap. Nothing will even come close to being solved until there is adequate housing for everyone.

But if a stop-gap could have prevented four individuals from freezing to death and living to another day, we would have considered that a victory.