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September 21st, 2005 Toby Van Fleet | News Stories
 

Shelter Skelter

As Katrina evacuees get a warm and fuzzy welcome, Portland's own homeless ask, "What about us?"

     
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Cots for Katrina evacuees? Yes. For local homeless? No.
IMAGE: TOM OLIVER
While Red Cross volunteers stacked cots meant for Katrina evacuees who never came to Washington-Monroe High School, Steven Roberts was hanging out near his usual sidewalk sleeping spot on the west end of the Burnside Bridge.

Roberts' response when told cots were being folded up last week across the river: "That's bullshit."

"Police tell you to get up off the sidewalk,'' says Roberts, 44 and homeless for about a year. "Why not put us somewhere?"

The question echoes the anger of many among the estimated 2,300 people sleeping outside, in cars and abandoned buildings in Multnomah County.

Their question: If the community could come together for hurricane survivors 2,500 miles away, how about sending a little love their way?

Recently at JOIN, a Southeast Portland group that works to house the homeless, clients fumed about the money and volunteers for Katrina evacuees. Rob Justus, JOIN's executive director, says he knows two local men who'd waited for a shelter bed for more than three weeks. When they heard about the evacuee shelter, they just threw up their hands, "like all of a sudden there's a shelter?" says Justus.

On the money side, hurricane survivors have it over local poor folks because the Federal Emergency Management Agency theoretically will reimburse the costs still being tallied. (State emergency-management director Ken Murphy believes the feds intend to reimburse, but it's unclear whether local and state expenses will be fully compensated.)

"There's been a great spirit...to help [the evacuees]," says Heather Lyons, the city's homeless-program manager. "But they do come with resources.''

By contrast, there's not enough money to address the gap between the need for shelter in the county and capacity for local homeless, according to the Housing Authority of Portland, the public agency that administers federal "Section 8" vouchers to subsidize low-income housing. The agency committed 100 vouchers to hurricane evacuees, who could walk in and get a voucher the same day, according to its Section 8 director, Rose Bak.

Meanwhile, about 6,000 low-income Portlanders have been on a waiting list for those subsidies since October 2002. Bak says federal budget cuts have meant the agency hasn't taken new voucher applications for three years.

On the charitable-response side, it appears that dramatic disaster has trumped everyday local misery. The Oregon Trail Chapter of the Red Cross, which includes Multnomah and six other counties, has seen a 56-fold increase in volunteers since Katrina.

Jeff Hale, an assistant dean at Oregon State University who has studied charitable giving, says people distinguish the deserving poor from the undeserving poor. JOIN's Justus agrees, saying it has become a question of "the worthy and the unworthy."

 
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