A problem that isn’t going away soon

Late this summer my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful trip to the Pacific Northwest.

The region is steeped in natural beauty. We explored rain forests and high alpine mountains, walked ocean beaches and hiked trails back to many waterfalls.

We also spent time in some of the region’s larger cities and it was there that I was particularly struck with a sobering reality: the region suffers from a huge homeless problem. Diane and I noticed the same thing several years ago in San Francisco, where the homeless literally can be found just about at every street corner. With this trip it wasn’t quite that bad, but still was very noticeable and pronounced — both in the U.S. and Canada.

Today begins Homeless Awareness Week in Michigan and for me, the plight of the homeless has become an issue that is tugging at my heart. I am thankful I live in a community with a very well run homeless shelter that does an important service locally. Yet that being said, I am not naive to believe there are more homeless sleeping places I am not aware that also need help. I understand there are many places in Michigan not as fortunate as Alpena. And, as evidence by what I wrote above, there are many places in the U.S. where people are suffering, trying to find their way in a world turned upside down and inside out.

In Portland, which is an interesting city from a variety of perspectives, it was hard not to notice the vast amount of litter near areas where people were obviously living. I remember thinking that for such a progressive city focused on environmental issues, the litter was disgusting and quite out of place with the image the city wanted to portray.

As it turned out, I was witnessing a trend that has grown to epidemic proportions in that region. This week the Associated Press ran a very interesting series on the plight of the homeless in the Pacific Northwest. One of the stories in the series can be read on pages 8A and 9A in today’s newspaper.

“The rising numbers of homeless people have pushed abject poverty into the open like never before and have overwhelmed cities and nonprofits,” the AP series stated. “The surge in people living on the streets has put public health at risk, led several cities to declare states of emergency and forced cities and counties to spend millions — in some cases billions — in a search for solutions.”

When one mentions homelessness, I think our stereotypical response is to think of drug addicts, winos and people suffering from mental illness. As the AP series explains, however, the face of today’s homeless also can be average families whose salaries haven’t kept pace with their bills, veterans who have been evicted from their apartments and single parent families living out of a car.

And, on the West Coast homelessness is a problem out of control.

According to the AP report “voters (in west coast states) have approved more than $8 billion in spending since 2015 on affordable housing and other anti-homelessness programs, mostly as tax increases. Los Angeles voters, for example, approved $1.2 billion to build 10,000 units of affordable housing over a decade to address a ballooning homeless population that’s reached 34,000 people within city limits.

“Seattle spent $61 million on homeless-related issues last year, and a recent budget proposal would increase that to $63 million. Four years ago, the city spent $39 million on homelessness. Sacramento has set a goal of moving 2,000 people off the streets in the next three years and may place a housing bond before voters in 2018.”

Thankfully those statistics don’t hold true in Michigan, where the number of homelessness actually has dropped by 9 percent from 2014 through 2016.

“While many parts of the country are seeing increases in the number of people experiencing homelessness, we’ve reduced the homeless population in Michigan by 9 percent in recent years,” said Earl Poleski, executive director of the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.

Earlier this week some state lawmakers spent the night outside in Lansing as they participated in a homeless awareness event sponsored by the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness. The event helped draw attention to the 67,000 homeless who can be found in Michigan, and I applaud their sincerity at drawing attention to the issue.

As we enter the beginning weeks of the annual Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday stretch, I urge readers to keep in mind the homeless when they consider sharing their financial blessings in this timeframe. A growing homeless problem is gripping the nation as we face a wave of domestic “refugees” who find themselves in a proverbial boat without any oars.

If possible, let’s try to row together and share an oar where we can this season.

Bill Speer can be reached via email at bspeer@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 354-3111 ext. 331. Follow Bill on Twitter @billspeer13.