Churches and the homeless: Oregon media do the best job crediting who's really helping out

Homelessness is a huge problem on the West Coast, which seems to be the nation’s new mecca for tent cities, shelters and encampments under the freeways. California alone has 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population and when the weather gets warm, a lot of them migrate north to Oregon and Washington.

Several mayors of large cities in three states met in December to figure out how to solve a problem that’s increasingly taking up public money and sidewalk space.

The Oregonian did a series on the problem a year ago, as Portland’s lenient policies on sidewalk residents –- along with a lack of low-cost housing –- have attracted a large population. Willamette Week recently compared Portland’s generous policies with other West Coast cities. And the homeless problem here in Seattle has become so epic, photographers are doing year-long projects about it.

As I’ve scanned bunches of articles on this phenomenon, I’ve noticed a dearth of mentions on the churches that are out there helping the homeless. There are some exceptions, such as this 2004 Los Angeles Times piece on Azusa Pacific University’s homeless outreach.

Note: I had to go back 12 years to find that one.

Of all the major West Coast papers, the Oregonian seems to have done the most, including this 2012 piece that mentions a faith outreach that involves everyone from the Muslims to the Congregationalists; a piece last September about a Mennonite preacher and his homeless shelter and a more recent piece that mentions several Christian ministries who are feeding and sheltering the poor. But usually such mentions of religious involvement are more offhand, like in this recent piece in the Everett (Wash.) Herald.

Considering the criticism that church groups endure for everything from sex abuse in the pews to corrupt clergy, it’s curious how little credit they get for doing the right thing in an area where I don’t see other religious groups active at all.

On Tuesday, the Portland Tribune, a 15-year-old bi-weekly newspaper that has livened up Oregon’s media scene a bit, came out with a piece that asked whether churches are adding to the problem. It starts thus:

Do the cluster of churches and organizations on the edge of downtown Gresham offering food and shelter encourage homeless campers to congregate along the Springwater Trail?
The trail acts as a corridor for many homeless between Portland and Gresham. Two weeks ago the city of Gresham fenced off 60 acres on the south edge of the trail because campers were destroying years of woodland restoration work. Neighbors also complained that some homeless were sneaking onto their property and threatening them.
During a 10-hour police shift last Friday, two officers found 36 people in the restricted area. Eight were given warnings for being inside the area, two men were arrested for felonies, and one man was arrested on a Clackamas County warrant.
Some Gresham residents feel the churches and organizations who offer a daily meal and day shelter are drawing the homeless population to the city. ...
While some believe that the services attract the people, advocates for the homeless population say this is a myth that distracts from working on solutions like housing and rent control.

Gresham, by the way, is an 18-mile bus ride from downtown Portland. The piece delivers a wallop from the local police who say much of the homeless are non-local folks who show up in Gresham because of all the free food. The police chief goes so far to say that if the churches are going to lure these folks in for meals, they bear the responsibility for providing other services, such as shelter.

Unfortunately, the piece is way too short to go into whether churches are hurting more than helping, other to conclude that pastors were unaware of the problems their largesse could cause. Maybe all these faith groups are doing too good a job. Then again, one pastor to the homeless in Washington, D.C., told me once that one cannot go hungry on the streets of the nation’s capital because there are so many religious groups handing out free food.

So, the aforementioned Oregon media are doing a better job than their compatriots in Washington and California of covering what the faith community is doing to service the increasing amounts of folks without a place to lay their heads. (Google “Portland” and “homeless” and “faith” and you get a lot more media mentions than the same list with “Seattle” subbed for Portland).

The bottom line for journalists: The next article should be on what would happen if no faith groups were around to help.

What would happen? I don’t think the answer would be a pretty one.

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