At 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 29, Elvira Mary Shetter-Marshall, age 58, was found dead outside the Eugene Municipal Court in a covered bike-rack area where she often slept. The temperature that night had fallen to 34 degrees, four degrees above the mark that activates the Egan Warming Center.
Details about her life, and death, were sparse. She was homeless; she was familiar to court staff and well-liked by them; she was suffering from mental illness.
Shetter-Marshall’s life, and death, leave troubling questions, including how it is that Americans have come to accept that fellow citizens are dying on the streets — something once thought to be a hallmark of the poorest Third World countries — and what needs to be done to prevent it.
This isn’t a situation that developed overnight; if it had, there might have been more of an outcry. Instead, it is the culmination of many factors, including a decades-long weakening of a once-robust network of resources for people with financial, physical, mental health or a variety of other problems.
Another factor is philosophical, or ideological: A growing sentiment that have-nots are to blame for their situation, that they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and that the larger community has a limited responsibility to deal with them.
But some people have no bootstraps by which to pull themselves up. An unemployed person may not have the skills or experience that match the jobs on offer. A job applicant may be passed over because of a criminal record. A substance abuser may be unable to find treatment. Family resources may be weak or non-existent. Mental health services may become available only after a crisis has become acute.
And all the while, structural changes in the U.S. economy have widened the gap between rich and poor.
A steady decrease in funding for programs that provide jobs, housing, training and treatment means that non-profit groups such as Buckley House, CAHOOTS and First Place Family Center have been left to figure out how to meet increasing demands for their services while coping with chronic financial uncertainty.
As the safety net frays, more people fall through the growing holes — people such as Shetter-Marshall.
There is a cost for this. It is paid in the form of a reduced quality of life, as when people no longer feel comfortable using a running path or park because of the homeless people there. It is paid in the impact on a society or culture whose members become inured to people like Shetter-Marshall. It is paid by businesses in cleanup costs and lost customers attributed to an increasing homeless population.
And it is paid when expensive emergency rooms are used as primary care facilities, and when police officers and jails are left to deal with problems that could be better, and more economically, handled by social service or mental health agencies.
A recent survey of the Lane County Jail found that more than 60 percent of the beds were filled by people who were there because of mental health issues. Local police officers say dealing with mental health crises consumes much of their time. Some cite the story of “Million Dollar Murray,” a homeless man in Reno, Nev. Two policemen there calculated the cost of Murray’s hospital bills, treatment costs for substance abuse, doctors’ fees and other expenses for 10 years came to $1 million.
The cost of not dealing with Murray’s many problems, they told the New Yorker magazine, far exceeded what it would have cost to give him the mental health and treatment services he needed.
Homelessness is not going to go away on its own. And homeless people can’t simply be pushed on to other cities, as some have suggested. An estimated 70 percent of the local homeless population is from Lane County. And foisting the problem on other cities down the road gains nothing if other cities are doing the same.
A better approach — the only approach — is both comprehensive and targeted, both local and regional, or even nationwide.
Some success stories provide useful models, such as the partnership between government and non-profit agencies to house veterans, which has reduced the number of homeless veterans in Lane County to near zero, according to non-profit groups that work with vets.
Self-governing collections of micro-housing units in Eugene also have proved workable. And the Eugene Mission’s focus on moving people out of homelessness, rather than warehousing them, is helping to reduce the homeless population.
Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy’s proposal for a public shelter is a cost-effective way to get people off the streets temporarily, until a more permanent solution is available.
Getting funding for intervention and support programs has been a tough sell at the state level. A bi-partisan bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature last year to impose a tax on large sellers of alcoholic beverages to pay for sobering centers, for example, never made it out of committee. But legislators reflect, and respond to, their constituents.
An important step toward finding workable solutions for homelessness came last month when mayors from major West Coast cities, including Piercy, met for a two-day summit to discuss shared concerns, including homelessness. The goal was to not only exchange information and best practices, but to develop a joint agenda for federal action.
Local public and private agencies could benefit from a similar approach, sharing information. mapping a coordinated plan and enlisting public support.
The cost of doing nothing, as Million Dollar Murray shows, is too high. Indeed, as Elvira Mary Shetter-Marshall should teach us, the cost is unacceptable.