There’s a kind of urban legend about services for homeless folks. Maybe you’ve heard it. The legend goes like this: If someone wants to get into housing, they can. If someone wants to get into a shelter, they can. There are ample, clean beds just waiting — all a person living outside needs to do is accept the generous offers of help they receive when teams of police stomp by, bagging up tents and throwing away tarps.
This story usually concludes with a housed person determining that homeless people “should go to a shelter and get help.”
But that’s not how the real world works. Anyone who has any experience with homelessness will tell you that getting into a shelter — any shelter — is no easy feat. There aren’t enough beds or cots or even mats on the floor. And there definitely aren’t enough beds in spaces that are safe for trans people, that are wheelchair accessible, that permit pets or that allow partners to stay together. Folks may have to ride the bus across town to get a spot, only to be told that the beds are all full.
It’s also not true that people are even being offered these services. A February Oregonian report found that the vast majority — 95 percent — of people living in Portland encampments were not offered meaningful services while their belongings were being swept.
And of course it’s not true that the services which do exist can adequately help the people who need it the most. Yes, some people do prefer to sleep in a tent instead of on a canvas camp bed. In shelters, your stuff can get stolen. The screaming of the guy with PTSD in the cot next to you might trigger your own trauma response. You’re afraid to close your eyes. You get rousted from bed before the crack of dawn. But still, housed people think shelters simply must be appealing.
This is the great fairy tale of our time — that somehow all homeless people could, right this minute, get the help they need. That they choose not to because of some character flaw.
But it’s a fantasy. It’s a bedtime story designed to make people who sleep inside feel safe and good. Because as long as they can continue to believe that shelter exists, they can continue to feel contempt for the people they see camping along the greenbelts.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer living in Portland.
Read more of the Apr. 6-12, 2022 issue.