The importance of accepting what homelessness isn’t


With today being National Homeless Persons Memorial Day, it was an opportunity to use today’s editorial to raise awareness about an issue that has often been dealt with through stereotypes instead of solutions…



imageThere are a lot of things we’re proud of as Oregonians:

The scenic beauty we are constantly surrounded by.

Our generally progressive thinking on important issues.

Being outside of California.

Yet, amid all the things about Oregon that make us proud, there’s one thing I find it hard to admit about my beloved state.

While homelessness has declined around the nation, Oregon continues to have the highest percentage of homeless families with children. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of homeless families decreased in 41 states across America while, in Oregon, we experienced a 2.5 percent increase — the fifth highest in the nation.

Right after California. 

According to a report released in November by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), more than half of Oregon’s homeless families (60.5 percent) are without shelter, either living on the street, in cars or in tents within that scenic beauty I mentioned earlier.

As much as we want to tell ourselves that most of the homeless are drug addicts, criminals or suffering from mental disorders, the fact is more than half of the homeless living without shelter in Oregon — more than 7,000 — are either school-aged or displaced veterans.

To bring it a little closer to home, each day, 92 students between the Siuslaw and Mapleton School Districts go to class, participate in school activities and finish the day without a permanent home to go to.

As it stands, 4.3 percent of Siuslaw’s student body is homeless. By comparison, the statewide average is 3.7 percent.

Before we can truly address the issue of homelessness, we must be willing to understand that the majority of those who are living their lives without a home aren’t those on the street whose faces we often avoid. The fact is, more often they are those whose faces we recognize each day but who never say a word about their homelessness. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. They are students, cooks, part-time employees, unemployed veterans and senior citizens faced with deciding between medication, food or shelter.

By stereotyping the homeless as addicts or criminals, we insulate ourselves from the reality of homelessness, and how close we all are from a life without shelter. Truth be told, nearly half of Americans live less than two paychecks away from the kind of financial crisis that could lead to homelessness.

That’s not the kind of stereotype we want to think about, but one we have to be willing to accept in order to affect the kind of change that will, in turn, changes the lives of so many of our homeless in Oregon.

Today in Florence, we have an opportunity to affect that kind of change by participating in — and supporting — National Homeless Persons Memorial Day. It’s a day that has been set aside each year since 1990 to raise awareness of those who don’t have a place to call home, as well as remember those who have died as a result of being homeless.

Between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., consider donating any of the following supplies (new or used) at KXCR Radio (across from the library on Ninth Street) or City Lights Cinema, 1930 Highway 101: Tents, tarps, sleeping bags, ponchos, warm waterproof jackets, blankets, gloves, warm hats and hand warmers, cotton socks, flashlights and batteries, fast food or grocery gift cards, canned foods and personal hygiene items.

While the bigger solution to homelessness in Oregon will require more than donations of food and clothing, our willingness to acknowledge the homeless in our community by offering support is an important step toward achieving something else we can all be proud of as Oregonians.


Ned Hickson is a nationally syndicated humor columnist with News Media Corporation and the editor of Siuslaw News. He is also the author of Humor at the Speed of Life, a collection of more than a decade of humor columns; and Pearls of Writing Wisdom: From 16 shucking years as a columnist, a writer’s survival guide. Both are available from Port Hole Publishing.

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

55 thoughts on “The importance of accepting what homelessness isn’t”

  1. It is a problem that affects far too many so-called ‘civilised’ countries, Ned. And at a time of year when many are spending to excess on non-essentials, there are way too many who do not even have the wherewithal to survive, through no fault of their own.
    I was, briefly, homeless as a young teenager. I have watched my own sons go without necessities, in spite of all my best efforts and I know what hunger feels like.
    I’ve never done drugs, I’ve worked hard, done my best. Sometimes, these things just happen unavoidably. Yet still the stigma attaches to the result, not the cause.

  2. What a beautiful and eloquent piece on the sad truth.
    One of my very dear friends was briefly homeless this summer. Without giving away details, it was heartbreaking to witness from afar and up close and personal – that person too proud and too overwhelmed by sudden circumstances to accept help of any kind. While the story is still unfolding, the experience has taught me even more about the importance of seeing beyond the smile and through the stereotypes.

    1. Thanks, Michelle. And you’re so right that seeing “Beyond the smile and through the stereotypes” is crucial — and something that kind of goes against our nature. Particularly in this age of “everyone’s happy on Facebook!”

      My best thoughts for your friend, Michelle.

  3. This is a great piece Ned. I work in the non-profit world & see firsthand the people you are referring to in this post. So often, we make assumptions about who our homeless population are. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on a very complex issue.

  4. Homelessness is a truly complex and tragic problem. I believe that a part of the problem is an unintended consequence of the civil rights movement. When that needed legislation was passed it also “emancipated” many who were not capable of making decisions for themselves but were not “clear threats to themselves or others.” By removing, for the most part, the possibility of temporary involuntary commitment some folks unable to make rational choices concerning their own welfare joined the homeless population. This is by no means the major cause but perhaps if those in this category could be evaluated and treated the overall population of the homeless might be reduced a bit.

  5. One of the biggest barriers is access to affordable housing. My husband is a veteran who struggles with service related PTSD and it is a battle to get him help with his employability. It’s complicated and not every veteran has a spouse willing to go into this battle. In the meantime, I’ve paid tens of thousands of dollars over for years to keep us in a good home. All my writing income went to living. But it was a rental and when the owners abruptly decided to sell and thought their house, our home, would sell better empty, we were served a 30 day notice to vacate. We’ve been homeless since June 17. We camped at first, spiraling into the lifestyle where it’s a daily struggle to find a bathroom, shower and drinking water. Then we discovered RV parks. Think of them as outdoor apartments for campers. You have to be able to adapt to the RV lifestyle, to pass for acceptance into the community. You have to have a trailer, and most parks dictate you have one no older than 10 years. We have that now, so I say out situation has upgraded to displaced. We have no home, but we have shelter with basic needs met. Our rental never did sell. But it now rents for $500 more a month, or so we’ve heard through the grapevine. What I do know for certain is that I’ve met a number of what I’d call hidden homeless among us over the summer and many are families who can’t afford to get into a house with the deposits and rents. Yet both parents work. Others are older who couldn’t afford their homes on limited retirement and they traded their house for an RV. Many are veterans living in their vehicles because the HUD VASH program doesn’t work. For example, we couldn’t qualify when we were first homeless because, as ac writer, I make too much! Yet I didn’t make enough to move somewhere else where his were available and affordable. Those who do qualify find that no one wants to rent to the program. The stigma of “government handouts.” I’ve talked to other vets and it takes about 2 years to get homed after being displaced. But cheer up. Those of you not homeless are good at taking care of each other. You might want to broaden that circle of care, though.

    1. I wish I could say yours was an unusual story, but even here in my smaller home town, the housing market — and sales of rental homes — has displaced many families who are now either “couch surfing” with other family or friends, or living in tents. Between our two local schools and student population of 600, we have 97 homeless students. Seems unacceptable to me.

      Thank you for sharing your story, Charli, which further illustrates that homelessness is like cancer — it can strike anyone, anywhere. My best thoughts and hopes are with you and your husband.

      1. There’s a term that rarely makes mainstream media and it’s “rural homelessness.” Often people move away and it’s unknown that they are homeless. Or they live as you describe. Access to affordable housing in a timely manner is the cute for this social cancer. Thank you for addressing the often taboo topic and for your kind response.

  6. Something we ALL need to pay attention to. This year I started a program called Dollars for Dinners in my community. We make Freezer crockpot meals for our local food bank so families can have wholesome, real home cooked meals instead of just boxes of macaroni and cheese and cans of tuna. The donations keep coming in and the families who visit the food bank are thrilled.

  7. Our finances have gone slowly down the drain over the last year. My daughter and I are working part time, but have yet to get anything full time. My son has applied for a lot of jobs, but no luck yet. Unless something changes, we will be joining the ranks of the homeless by Feb 1st. Our car will be our home. My son has struggled with OCD (me as well) and up until a few years ago his life was pure hell. It took years to find anyone who took it seriously and meds help a bit. Still, he didn’t finish school and is now working on that, but job hunting without a diploma is almost impossible. I was told living in the car is against the law. Is it better to sit on a street corner next to the car? I need to get details soon so I get it right. It is a terrifying thing to watch everything you have slowly going away and you can’t do a thing about it.

    1. I’m so very sorry to hear about this, grannyK. I truly hope you find the help and support you need to get through this. Exhaust every agency. They are there to help ‚ please use them. It’s why they get grants and financial support. Local shelters, churches and service organizations — please don’t wait.

      1. I am breaking down and applying for assistance. I feel ashamed because I have NEVER had to do that and I have had tough times before. It will only be temporary, though! We are going to make things better. I think your post hit me hard yesterday because I have been so scared and stressed.

        1. There’s absolutely no reason to feel ashamed of needing a little help, especially since the decision didn’t come easy. I’m just so very glad to hear you’ve made the decision to get it, grannyK. Please keep me posted.

  8. Ned, thank you for this very enlightening article. So many of us cannot imagine living on the streets and feel it is a result of addiction or mental illness and sometimes it is but those people also need some place to go for shelter and food if they are willing. Any one of us can fall on hard times, become unemployed or disabled. Many of our veterans need help to get on their feet. In this rich country we need to work harder to help the homeless, the displaced, children on the street and battered women with no refuge. We have made strides here in Florida, but not enough. As one of your readers points out, we are caught up in the season of spending, it would do our hearts good to look around at the needy and offer whatever help we can, perhaps leaving food at the food bank, every little bit helps.

    1. A season of sharing instead of spending. Imagine what we could do as a nation if we all agreed, for one holiday season, to spend less on ourselves and share more with others.

  9. It’s a terrible shame in the land of opportunity that so many struggle and some without homes. I know this is a global issue, but I’m quite aware of the problem in the US and here in Canada. Your town is lucky to have someone like you on their side to advocate for those who don’t have a voice. I hope the drive was a great success! 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Deb. I’m happy to say the donation sites were overflowing tonight and a lot of people who need warm clothes, food and other items were able to get them during the longest night of the year 😉

  10. Thank you for shining a light on such an important topic. I was very lucky, back in my 20’s when my landlord sold the place I was renting, lying to us renters, saying that the sale wasn’t going through, and a pack of other lies. I came home from a 10 day trip at sea (I was working on a boat), to find the contents of the living room on the front lawn. I say I was lucky, because the new owners didn’t toss out my things, so I was able to gather up what I had. And they let me take a shower (during which I bawled my eyes out), before I packed and left. Having no place to stay, my boss was kind enough to let me sleep on the boat (all my stuff fit in my car), until I was able to move in with a friend a week later.

    I can happen so easily, to anyone.

    1. I think that realization is what keeps the conversation from happening in the first place — and why the problem continues. So glad to know you are where you are now, Susan. Thanks for sharing your story.

      My thoughts and best wishes to you always 😉

  11. I don’t live anywhere near you, I’m afraid, but yeah, homelessness is a huge problem. But since it doesn’t mesh well with that “American dream” politicians like to throw out there, it’s totally ignored and there’re so many labels attached when it is, so no wonder some people I know don’t want to bring it up–it’s like mentioning it makes it worse in the discussion. Lousy how it works, and it shouldn’t be as such. I’d be super happy if we could spend money on affordable housing for people or fix up what already exists (instead of clearing those “poor neighborhoods” out for more McMansions). I think it’s a crisis, but I think people turn their heads because they don’t have a clue what to do about it.

    Heaven knows I’d love to do something to help more people myself, but alas, I find myself in the position you were talking about, within 2 paychecks away from losing it all. It’s why I’m so busy looking for more work hours and ways to utilize what talents I might have and can capitalize on. But the world won’t wait for us to catch up, and we’re going broke just trying to stay in place. Sucks.

    I hope things improve for all of us, and keep spreading the word–maybe there’ll be some great ideas we can all do something with.

    1. Sadly, so very true on all counts. It’s the conversation no one wants to have yet one that we all must contribute to in order to create the kind of dialogue that leads to change.

  12. I think that while food and clothing are band aids, cheap housing is the key. Micro houses can be cheaply made, but most of the time cities won’t allow them and /or won’t waive code requirements. So people stay on the street.

    1. In Eugene, Ore., which is an hour east of us, they are creating a community of “Tiny Houses” where the homeless can have an address live until they find work or stabilize enough to find real housing. I know they have been doing that in Japan for several years. It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s better than the alternative.

  13. Merry late Christmas Ned… my life has been a little more wild than usual for the last 2 weeks. I would like to say it was because it has been the holidays but that is not the reason. It’s been a pluther of things. I always leave your blog posts in my inbox so I can read them and respond at a later time… this was the first one I opened. Homelessness is a subject very close to “home” if you will to us. For various reasons…none I will share here… our daughter was homeless for a few months back in 2010. They were not living on the streets but they didn’t have a home for a while. It is a horrible problem in this country and it breaks my heart. Thank you for writing this editorial. I pray the drive was a great success. This is a sensitive subject and it is sad people can turn a blind eye… but I have said it before and I am sure I will say it again “There by the grace of God, go I” :-/

    1. I’m so glad to hear your daughter’s homelessness was only temporary, Courtney. As a parent, I can’t — Nor do I want to — imagine my children being homeless (although I am tempted sometimes). I wish I had the answer, but this problem has been building for decades — and I’m afraid it might take as long to fix it. In the meantime, we can at least be aware and sensitive to what we can do to help.

  14. I lived in Vancouver, BC Canada for 19 years until I moved to Alberta at the end of 2015. The homelessness issue is a very serious problem in Vancouver because it is one of the warmest places in Canada. People go to Vancouver because they can survive the winters. There are thousands of homeless people surrounded by million dollar homes and condos. Thank you for pointing our attention to this problem and your insight.

    Sincerely Your Friend from Up North

      1. Some people want to be homeless and can’t be helped (I know this because some homeless people have told me this), some people suffer from mental illness and need funding and medical support beyond individual people’s means and some are just regular people who have hit a bad patch. So let me ask you something, what is the solution and why is this so important to you?

        1. I realize you can’t solve homelessness into a cookie-cutter approach. As you point out, it is the result of many situations, and certainly there are those who have chosen to live life off the grid. My concern is for the majority of homeless, who are without shelter because of economic or social conditions, i.e., mental illness or loss of income. The solution will require as many approaches as there are reasons for homelessness: better and more accessible health care; affordable housing, particularly for families; more support for veterans; higher education that doesn’t graduate students with enormous debt; to name a few. It’s going to require us to look at the long term net result as a society rather than the short-sighted gross profit we seem to favor right now.

          It’s important to me because I see the growing homelessness of families and young people as one symptom that we’re losing our way as a society. We have so much potential to do better — and we should.

          1. “We have so much potential to do better – and we should.” – Ned I am going to quote you, that is exactly how I feel about humankind. I was raised with the concept that the world is screwed and only God will fix things. Time will tell but in the meantime my experience with people is that they really do have greatness within them and it is our responsibility to empower as many people as possible to let their greatness out.

  15. I love this. Sometimes a problem like homelessness seems too big or vast to conquer, but this post demonstrates how action at the local level helps effect important change. I hope this was a huge success!

    1. Thanks, Karen. I’m happy to say there was enough food, clothing and toys donated to provide for more than 100 families in the area. And you’re right; if we all pitch in at the community level, the problem becomes a lot more manageable.

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