There are about 100 to 150 people who are chronically homeless in Ashland. As a community, we keep asking, "How do we solve this problem of people living on the street?" I believe we've been unable to answer this question because it is not the right first question to ask.

There are about 100 to 150 people who are chronically homeless in Ashland. As a community, we keep asking, "How do we solve this problem of people living on the street?" I believe we've been unable to answer this question because it is not the right first question to ask.

The first question we need ask is this: "Do we, as a community, have an obligation to provide shelter to people who cannot provide it for themselves?" Are we our brothers' and sisters' keepers? What do we owe them?

Many in Ashland say we support a strong social safety net. Yet when it comes to the chronically homeless, we want that social safety net kept neatly out of reach.

Our faith community, along with many other local groups, offers some assistance to people who live on the streets. But churches, synagogues and civic groups will not solve homelessness with our programs. Only the community together can do that, and it will require that local government take the lead.

In the years we've been providing services at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, I've come to see chronic homelessness as caused by three, often-interlocking conditions — mental illness, addictions and alcoholism — along with the various human disorders that prevent some people from having friends or family to help them off the street.

Homelessness is a tragedy, not a lifestyle. I think it was one of our City Council members who said last year in regard to the causes of chronic homelessness, "It's like peeling an onion: Every layer makes you weep."

I understand why our city government does not want to provide shelter for the homeless. Once we decide to provide shelter, it will be expensive, thankless and messy. It will require looking at our local budget and deciding what we are willing to trim or do without. In spite of what we like to pretend, there is no upside to this for most of us.

The only reason to take on this responsibility is because we've decided it is ethically the right thing to do. How do we, as a community, come to that decision? Do we have a moral obligation to provide shelter to those who cannot provide it for themselves? What do you think? I think we do.

The Rev. Pamela Shepherd is the minister of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Ashland.