This weekend, my girlfriend and I drove to Portland, Oregon to meet up with a friend and do the usual tourist stuff. We ate a maple bacon donut, wandered through Powell’s City of Books and poked around the holiday market for sales tax-free gifts. Our friend came by bus, so our trip was bookended by time spent in the Greyhound Bus Station, located in a seedy part of Portland’s urban core.
I wanted to like Portland, to soak up its edginess and hipster culture. But I was distracted. In the forgotten corner of the city around the bus station were tons of homeless people. I lost track of how many people asked me for money; how many people I saw curled up in doorways under blankets of newspaper and trash bags. There were several people with bags upon bags of belongings — the remnants of a once stable life.
And then there was the screaming. Every hour or so, someone was screaming at people no one else could see. It was unnerving.
Homelessness is one of those things people don’t like to talk about. It’s an issue that is constantly visible in the cities of America and sooner ignored than discussed. The Portland Housing Bureau estimates that on any given night, 2,470 people are homeless. The actual number is probably much higher. Across the United States, over 630,000 people are on the streets on in shelters. We let so many people slip through the cracks.
A few years ago, I volunteered at Project Homeless Connect in San Francisco, an event that provides homeless individuals with access to doctors, clothing, sack lunches, job placement agencies and veterans benefits professionals. I was a guide, taking a client to each station they needed to visit. Along the way, I learned many of their stories. Many had simply fallen on hard times. Skyrocketing medical bills or the loss of a job left ordinary people without the ability to afford housing. One was a student about my age, who lost his apartment when his financial aid didn’t come and lived in the park while attending classes. I was struck by how similar he was to me, and how easily I could be in the same situation.
In a society that puts so much value on individuality and pulling yourself up through hard work, America has little sympathy for those who stumble on the path to self-sufficiency. Too many people aren’t caught by the safety net and lose everything just because of bad luck or economic conditions.
But where we have really failed is in the area of mental healthcare. In the Greyhound Station, my girlfriend and our friend were understandably spooked by a woman with mental health problems who wanted to talk to them. In the streets of Portland, there are probably hundreds of people in need of care.
In America, we stigmatize mental conditions. We see it as a weakness rather than a medical issue that needs to be treated. The recent outbreak of shootings committed by people with these conditions are a stark reminder of how thoroughly we’ve let so many of our neighbors down.
As I board the train to work each morning, I see a makeshift camp on the side of the tracks. Sleeping bags and canteens lie abandoned as its inhabitants set out into Tacoma in search of food and shelter. Every day, I wonder why we aren’t doing more to help them get back on their feet. What tipping point must be reached before we combat the forces of poverty as fiercely as the forces of terrorism?
As a writer, I feel like I’m in a special position to talk about these issues when no one else will. It’s the task of a writer to draw the public’s eye to the ugly truths of our imperfect society. It is writers who must retell the stories of the voiceless and call for a change in the status quo.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA who has accidentally become an advocate on many issues in recent years. Please feel free to share and comment. You can also follow me on Twitter.