Rep. Reschke: Big hole in $200M homeless fund

By Oregon State Representative E. Werner Reschke,

The problem of homelessness continues to plague almost every community in Oregon. It seems no matter what solution state or local governments introduce, Oregon’s homelessness problem persists — or only gets worse.

During the 2023 legislative session the Oregon Legislature passed HB 2001 — a $200 million omnibus package to solve homelessness, or at least bring it under control. According the Governor’s Inaugural Address her goal with HB 2001 was to “help at least another 1,200 [homeless] Oregonians”. I voted NO on the bill simply on principle; in my view HB 2001 did not fix the problem, it only created another solution.

The dirty little secret in politics is that the easiest way politicians appear to address voter concerns is by spending other people’s money on the politicians’ grand solution. It doesn’t matter if the solution has never been tried, or even if the solution has failed elsewhere, spending tax dollars (and lots of them) on problems is an easy sell later on the campaign trail. “I voted Yes to dedicate $200 million to end homelessness!” Whether the spending fixes the problem is irrelevant. Just the mere statement aligns the politician with voter priorities, and just as important, demonstrates action. “I did something. I care. Vote for me.”

Since taking control of the legislature in 2007, Democrats have been masters at finding problems, spending lots of money and then running for re-election on their “compassion”. When their solutions fail, or don’t work well enough, the answer is more spending or new programs (which requires more staffing and more money). The common thread is that government is always at the center of their solutions.

Here’s the error to this approach: the root problem is rarely addressed. The reason is the goal of the spend-lots-of-money approach is not to fix the problem but rather find a justification to expand government’s size, scope and power.

Imagine for a moment you are on a luxury cruise ship out to sea. You are minding your own business and enjoying one of the cruise’s many amenities. Then a crew member informs you that the ship has a sizable hole and is taking on water. However, the crew member also informs you not to panic, and that everything is under control. The captain has called for more crew members to arrive shortly — and they’re bringing buckets! These additional crew members will bail the incoming water with the buckets and all will be well. However, there may be a slight fee increase on all entertainment and food items to cover the cost of the new crew and bucket supplies.

What would you think? Would you feel safe? Would you feel the captain had taken the appropriate action? Of course not, because the captain didn’t address the root problem — there’s a giant hole in the boat!

Politicians do the same thing. They spend money, often not to fix the problem, but rather to create a new solution — a solution that costs money and requires more government employees. In other words politicians love to hire more crew members in order to bail water in buckets. Yes, you’ll have to pay a little bit more for government, but that’s a small price for their ingenious solution. Politicians’ solutions often focus on the mess — the back end of the problem, but rarely address the root problem itself. A new “program” is created to give the illusion that government cares for your concerns and safety, but the reality is that nothing really gets fixed.

This is what HB 2001 does. It spends most of the $200 million on the building up government to address backend of the problem. HB 2001 hires more state workers and creates grant programs to “help” the homeless. What HB 2001 does not do is to address the root problem; it does not seek to solve the main causes to homelessness.

“Why are people homeless? What causes people to be homeless? Why do we have so much more homelessness than five years ago?” These are questions rarely asked or discussed. If they were then a real solution to fix the problem would be required. However, those real solutions may not justify politicians spending so much money or expanding government in largess. Real answers to the problem probably won’t gain the headlines as does spending $200 million. Real solutions also may require some personal responsibility from the people who are homeless, rather than treating them as helpless victims. Do they need help? Yes, but how we help them is the entire point. It is the difference between a “hand out” or a “hand up”. It is the difference of giving someone a fish to eat or teaching them how to fish. One solution enables their current behavior, requiring no personal responsibility; the other solution requires that people take responsibility for their actions and then empowers them become self-sufficient.

Estimates show over 75% of the homeless are addicted to one substance or another. That untreated addiction often leads to loss of employment, ruined relationships and eventually living on the streets. Each days’ goal becomes finding that next fix. With the passage of Ballot Measure 110 instead of arresting people for this behavior and giving them a choice between treatment or jail, BM 110’s decriminalization and open markets for meth, cocaine and heroin has meant many more people have been easily ensnared; moreover, they never get the help they need. And even though BM 110 sets aside 10’s of millions of dollars for drug and alcohol treatment, there is really no incentive for someone on the street to seek such treatment. When someone is neither sane or sober, they have a difficult time caring about anything beyond their immediate need. We need to rethink the consequences for illicit drug and alcohol use while providing the treatment people need to return to a better life. We can, and should, do both.

Unfortunately HB 2001, as many of the state’s policies, just allows the water to just keep pouring in. HB 2001 spends hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on more bailers and more buckets. The state needs to stop focusing exclusively on bailers and buckets; instead, government should turn its attention to policies that will fix the hole in the boat!