If you work in homeless services long enough, you lose clients outside. But each one is a painful tragedy.
Last week, we lost a young unsheltered mother. The week before another man was struck and killed by a car. A month before, our outreach team found a woman in a state of distress and, with Salem police, convinced her to go to the hospital, where they removed more than 200 maggots from an open wound. She survived. Less than a year ago, we had a baby born on the sidewalk, which was a monumental public failure of our homeless systems in Salem.
Salem has more than 1,200 citizens living in dangerous unsheltered conditions. If the Legislature does not act to extend the statewide eviction moratorium through April, an extra 120 days to make sure the vaccine is fully deployed, there will be others.
The COVID-19 pandemic will long be remembered as a crisis of the working poor, and tragically it has affected our Latinx, Black, elderly and disabled populations the most.
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These people are those who could not work from home and shelter behind technology, but instead went to work each day, picking and packing our food, stocking our shelves and caring for our children, the sick, elderly and disabled. Many of our working poor already were on the margins of homelessness. COVID-19 has driven many to the brink.
Our agency has provided $7 million in state rental and energy assistance since June, more than half of which went to communities of color. That commitment prevented an already serious homeless crisis from exploding into an unmanageable disaster.
Without this short extension of the eviction moratorium, it won’t be enough. We stand to lose the eviction line that we’ve held and squander the investments previously made if households are suddenly vulnerable to eviction in January.
It’s critical to understand the gravity of our situation. Many of our unsheltered homeless are chronically homeless and suffer from physical disability, substance use or mental health concerns. These are high needs folks who require significant system resources.
If we suddenly introduce a large number of newly homeless households into our systems in January, at a time when our service models are already strained under the current public health crisis, they will collapse.
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Our systems cannot absorb a newly emergent homeless population. Hundreds more would be evicted into homelessness. The shelter capacity to absorb such an increase does not exist in Oregon. Where we have shelter space it is limited by social distancing practices necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A newly unsheltered homeless population also will crowd our already overwhelmed homeless camping areas, with predictable consequences.
This is an avoidable tragedy, but one certain to come if a wave of evictions rolls out after Jan. 1.
Jimmy Jones is Executive Director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, and chair of the legislative committee at the Community Action Partnership of Oregon. You may reach him at Jimmy.Jones@mwvcaa.org