At Christmas, resolve to end homelessness
As Oregonians gather this year for Christmas, it is worth remembering that thousands in Portland and across the state will mark the day homeless — living in shelters, cars and tents.
Jesus, who consistently demonstrated what the Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez calls a "preferential option for the poor," would understand such suffering. He was, after all, born homeless and would become a political refugee far from his birthplace before his first birthday.
How are Christians called to address the crisis of homelessness as we celebrate the birth of Jesus? The Gospel of James offers guidance:
"What does it profit, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can faith save him? If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,' but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? Thus, also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."
For over 30 years, I've advocated for an end to homelessness: in the wealthiest nation on earth, homelessness is a choice — not a choice made by those who experience homelessness, but by a society that has determined that it is acceptable for people to live without housing or even food, including children.
I have sympathy for those who argue such visible suffering on our streets harms livability and the business climate. But the answer to this crisis will never include camp sweeps — a forced march to nowhere that pits housed neighbors against those who are experiencing homelessness — or large-scale camps.
For decades downtown business leaders — joined by politicians beholden to their donors and often with the support of newspaper editorial boards — have argued for sweeps and more punitive measures that criminalize homelessness without creating the resources needed to end homelessness.
In recent years, more of a consensus emerged. After decades of debate, voters — with the support of many business and political leaders — have adopted a housing first model. As Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury recently reminded the Portland City Council, a housing first model "is really the only thing that ends homelessness."
Mayor Ted Wheeler and his deputy, former Mayor Sam Adams, have a different vision. They would abandon a strategy that works and replace it with one that no longer seeks to end homelessness, but simply makes it less visible.
Unfortunately, Wheeler is endorsing the same failed policies of Adams and his predecessor, Vera Katz, that helped create the crisis we now face with their refusal to address Portland's affordable housing crisis. Incoming Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson should follow Kafoury's wise example and oppose the mayor's plans.
Oregon Governor-elect Tina Kotek, who promised to declare a state emergency to address the homelessness crisis, should also reject Band-aids and politically minded solutions for ideas that actually work. Instead, her emphasis should be the creation of genuinely affordable housing and supportive services, not camps.
The Prophet Isaiah said: "if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday." We face challenging times, made more painful by the pandemic and the collapse of the economy, but there is a path forward.
Christmas provides an opportunity to gather with family and friends. Let this season also be a time of reflection on how all of us together can advance the common good. After all, Christmas is just a beginning point for faith.
As Howard Thurman wrote:
"When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart."
The Rev. Chuck Currie is university chaplain emeritus at Pacific University and a former board member of the National Coalition for the Homeless
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