Working to change the debate

Staff writer, by Israel Bayer

Street Roots is actively working with a roundtable of folks to begin tracking the number of individuals who pass away on the streets. Sound simple? Not so fast. It’s one thing to collect data about people who pass away — it’s another to develop a strategy to deliver annual reports and findings from the medical examiner’s office to build a case regionally on how to leverage funding and targeted services for people experiencing homelessness. But that’s what we are setting out to do.

Street Roots has been working on this issue for the past two and a half years — from both a journalism and advocacy angle. One of the things that is unique about Street Roots is our ability to use our journalism to create change. We do not publish advocacy journalism; instead, we report the facts and specifics around a particular issue. We then use our editorials, vendor program and advocacy efforts to move a targeted issue forward. In this case, it’s counting individuals who have died on the streets.

What’s at stake? First is the dignity of the individuals who passed away and being able to recognize someone as a human being instead of a throwaway. Second is possibly millions of dollars from any number of groups, including state and federal government, health foundations, hospitals, and others who need real data to help make the case for homelessness being a health issue instead of one of public safety, as it is today. While counting people on the streets who die and being able to understand why they are dying is only one slice of the larger formula to create real change, it’s an important one.

Currently, Street Roots is working with stakeholders, including County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, the health department, the medical examiner and district attorney’s office, service providers, the city of Portland, people experiencing homelessness and others to help bring this campaign home. Our goal is to have something in place by January 2011. But there’s a lot to do between now and then, including making sure all the bureaucracies are informed and aligned and bringing on new partners for the research component.

We are cautiously optimistic that we can find a way, that we will be able to make the region a better place, and create real systematic change. Something that is at the heart of Street Roots is all about.

Having the ability to understand how many individuals are dying on the streets, and why, is something our community has been advocating in one form or another for at least two decades. With a little bit a luck, some political will, and the right partners, this time next year SR and other newspapers in the region, universities and foundations, government institutions and the general public will hopefully have an important tool to use when building a movement to end poverty on Portland’s streets.

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