The question of how to house thousands of people living homeless on city streets continues to dog major West Coast cities up and down the I-5 corridor, including Seattle. Now, our neighbors in Portland, Oregon are seriously considering a proposal to open large, open-air camping sites that would be sanctioned by the city, in combination with a ban on people camping on sidewalks, parks, and other public areas.
The effort is being spearheaded by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. Rebecca Ellis covers Portland City Hall for Oregon Public Broadcasting. She told KUOW’s Kim Malcolm about developments there.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Rebecca Ellis: This is a proposal Mayor Wheeler developed alongside a commissioner named Dan Ryan, who’s in charge of housing services here in the city. They want to build three large, sanctioned campsites. We don’t know where these will go yet, but somewhere in the city. Wheeler wants them to be able to take between 150 and 500 people. So, much, much larger than anything the city’s done.
Once the city builds that they’re hoping they will be able to actually ban unsanctioned homeless camping. So, those tents you see lining a lot of city blocks in Portland, and I’m sure Seattle, would be illegal. Everyone would be required to go to these sanctioned campsites.
Kim Malcolm: It sounds expensive. What could this cost?
It’s super-expensive. They’re in the really early stages here, and no one has come out with a hard number yet. Looking at some of the early figures they were throwing out it’s in the tens of millions of dollars. The city also says they’re going to need to partner with the county, the state, potentially even the federal government for funding. This is not something they think they can do alone.
What are Portlanders seeing and living with on a daily basis currently?
During the pandemic, homelessness really exploded in Portland, like a lot of cities on the West Coast. There is no neighborhood where tents aren’t lining a significant number of city blocks. I think housed Portlanders have grown have grown increasingly furious over the city’s approach to camping, which has so far just been kind of sweeps. You dismantle a homeless camp, the campers move somewhere else. They have been calling for the city to do something. This is what the city has come up with.
Has Portland’s Mayor seen something like this work in another city that he’s pointing to as a success?
The mayor is really interested in what’s happening in Los Angeles. There is a group called Urban Alchemy, which is actually based in San Francisco. They have built a large, city-sanctioned campsite. Portland sent a delegation down to LA to check it out. They really liked it.
You were at a hearing last night. How are local residents feeling about this?
I’d say it was pretty divided. There are very strong passions on both sides. There are a lot of people, particularly homeless advocates and providers who say this is criminalizing homelessness. They say it’s cruel. There were a lot of people who were very passionately against this plan.
But there are a lot of people that say, ‘Look, enough is enough. This is unsustainable. We can’t go on this way. The city needs to do something. This is the closest thing we’ve seen to a comprehensive effort to address this issue from the city. Let’s go for it.’ So, a lot of strong feelings on both sides.
And how about the people who provide services for people living homeless, and who run the local shelters? What are they saying?
The providers I’ve talked to are in the camp that this criminalizes homelessness, and is not the way the city should go. They also have an interesting perspective on feasibility. A lot of these people manage shelters. There’s a sense that around 60 people is probably as high as you should safely go with camps like these. They are very, very skeptical that something between 150 to 500 people can actually work, and the city would be able to run it safely.
What happens next in this process? How are they going to come to a decision?
There will be another council meeting in the middle of next week. We have five city council members, including the mayor. They’ll all be able to add amendments and changes they want to make to this plan. Then there will be a vote and this thing will either pass or it won’t.
Do you have a sense of how much support the mayor has on this right now?
I think it will pass. I don’t know in what form. I think there could be some amendments that are offered. But look, there are five people in the council. It’s been introduced by two of them. There’s one commissioner who’s been pretty clear he supports it. You need three votes to pass something. So, I think in some form this will absolutely pass.
If this does pass, how do you see it as it stands in the spectrum of how people have been trying to deal with this issue in the course of the city’s history?
There was actually some testimony yesterday on this topic. The city has tried to implement camping bans repeatedly throughout its decades-long history trying to deal with the homelessness crisis. They never totally pan out the way the city envisions. I’m particularly interested in whether this plan will succeed or not because it requires so much support from other levels of government that the city hasn’t always played nicely with. So, a lot of people see this as history repeating itself, and to be determined whether it will actually work and change the direction of the region’s homeless crisis.
Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.