After six years in office, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler revealed last week he was ready to make a sharp change in strategy toward the region’s homeless crisis.
Alongside Commissioner Dan Ryan, his office has crafted a series of resolutions that aim to build at least three large city-sanctioned camping sites and ban other homeless camping across Portland. The Portland City Council will hear public comment Wednesday afternoon.
The plan is already controversial. So far, 175 people have signed up to testify and the city has received 500 letters about the proposal. Supporters have hailed it as a necessary, long overdue step to address the tents that have multiplied in almost every neighborhood. Critics say forcing people to move into camps is inhumane and that the camps, which could ultimately host between 150 and 500 people, will quickly grow unruly and unsafe.
Both critics and supporters have been left mulling the same question: Can the city, which has struggled to build six significantly smaller shelters, actually pull this off?
So far, the details are murky. Most of last week’s introductory press conference centered around aspirational goals to address the city’s housing and homeless crisis rather than concrete plans to make it happen.
The type of large outdoor campsite proposed by the mayor doesn’t exist in Portland, so it’s hard to say exactly how much the proposal would cost. But rough estimates provided by the city’s budget office show it won’t be cheap.
The city budget office, which based its estimates on information provided by the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services and the Safe Rest Village program, said the sites could cost between $3 million and $6.8 million each year if the camps end up serving 150 people. If they end up serving 500 people — the maximum number proposed by the mayor and Ryan — the cost could rise to between $10 million and $22.5 million annually.
The budget office notes this does not take into account the cost of providing tents or sleeping bags. It also doesn’t factor in how much it will cost to get the sites up and running, which could be between $4.3 million and $6.3 million.
Wheeler and Ryan also want to hire 50 new navigation members, outreach workers who connect people with shelters and services. The budget office puts the cost of hiring that staff at roughly $5 million per year.
The most expensive aspect of the plan will undoubtedly be the affordable housing portion. As part of the package, council offices have been asked to find ways to speed up the production of 20,000 units of affordable housing. According to the city budget office, constructing those units would cost approximately $9.8 billion.
In his Friday address, the mayor called this portion of the plan a “moonshot.”
“I’m not being Pollyannaish about this and saying we can solve this next year or the year after that or the year after that,” he said. “We could with dedication and with changes in state law and a commitment on the part of all levels of government, we could close that gap.”
Few parts of this plan can happen without other governmental agencies agreeing to help the city.
As part of the proposal, the city wants to create a diversion program for people arrested on low-level offenses, such as violating a camping ban. To make that happen, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office will need to be on board.
To foot the multi-billion dollar bill for affordable housing units, the city will need to work with Multnomah County, Metro, state legislators, the federal government, as well as nonprofit and private sector partners.
And to build designated camping sites and offer mental health and substance abuse treatment services at these sites, the city will need Multnomah County to assist.
After the mayor’s announcement, the agencies he called upon to help released muted statements. Most agreed with the mayor’s broad goal of ending homelessness and said they were open to hearing more details. None have offered a firm commitment to fund the plan.
TJ McHugh, an advisor for Commissioner Dan Ryan, said the city had not heard from most of these agencies since the press conference aside from their public statements.
Multnomah County, which oversees the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, has the most integral role to play in making Wheeler and Ryan’s multi-pronged plan a reality. Spokesperson Denis Theriault said county Chair Deborah Kafoury had spoken with the mayor’s office Tuesday about the proposal and found the conversation “productive.”
Kafoury also sent City Council members and their staff a letter Monday evening that outlines the high-level achievements of the Joint Office and making corrections to statements officials made in their press conference that she believed were inaccurate. She did not commit the county to fund anything the city has requested. Kafoury is term-limited out of office at the end of this year, so it could be up to her successor to decide Multnomah County’s involvement.
Where and who
The last big question left unanswered: Where will these campsites go and who will manage them?
The city struggled for months to find locations for Ryan’s six proposed Safe Rest Villages, bogged down by unexpected environmental hazards and angry neighbors. The mayor said in his Friday press conference that he believes this process will be smoother. He said he has locations in mind and believes the first site would come online “fairly quickly.”
It’s not yet clear who would run them. The mayor led a delegation of city and county officials to Los Angeles this week to meet with the group Urban Alchemy. The group began in San Francisco in 2018 and has contracted with the city of Los Angeles to provide restrooms and cleaning services to people living outdoors.
Mayoral aide Sam Adams said Wheeler returned from the one-day trip to Los Angeles impressed with the group’s ability to manage these sites.
“He came back from that trip confident that at least this one provider could do and do it well,” he said.
Adams said Urban Alchemy is a prominent contender to manage at least one of these sites, though the city has not made a final decision. He said he’s also interested in talking to local providers to see if any of them would want to take on a larger camp.
Andy Miller, the head of the nonprofit Our Just Future, which provides shelter services in Portland, said he had not heard of Urban Alchemy before the mayor’s press conference. Miller said he had not been contacted by the mayor’s office and hadn’t heard of any local providers who were.
Even if he had been, Miller said, his organization had concerns about managing a shelter as large as the mayor is proposing. Human Solutions currently operates shelters for between 90 and 125 people at a time.
“It’s already difficult work,” he said. “Doing that for 500 people who are sleeping outside and even beginning to talk about what are the community guidelines that you would want to maintain in a place like that feels unfathomable. [It’s] just really, really difficult to consider taking on as a provider of services.”
Miller described himself as “pretty dubious” that the mayor’s plan would succeed. He pointed to the difficulty the city has found in citing the six Safe Rest Villages and the lack of discussion about what kind of services would be at the sites to help people find permanent housing.
“Putting all of the practicality aside, I think most folks who are in the provider community are reacting to the nation that this is a proposal that ultimately is trying to criminalize homelessness,” he said.
The City Council will hear testimony on the package beginning at 2 p.m. Wednesday.