Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and several of his colleagues want to force people living on the streets into large city-sanctioned camps where they can more easily access services to help stabilize their lives.
At a press conference on Friday, Wheeler said the city must ban public camping. He said prior efforts to set up temporary shelters have not worked because city officials lack the ability to make people use them.
“Some will argue we should establish these larger camps with access to services but not ban self-sited camping citywide,” Wheeler said. “I believe this thinking is well-intentioned, I also believe it is deeply misguided.”
The mayor and Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the Portland Housing Bureau, said they will bring five resolutions to council next week that, if successful, would create government-approved camping sites throughout the city, accelerate the creation of affordable housing units, and allow Portland leaders to ban camping on city streets.
“The pace with which we are building housing is not fast enough, nor is it scaled to reflect the humanitarian crisis we are facing,” Ryan said. “… Simply put, we can no longer tolerate the intolerable.”
Though no cost estimate was provided in the resolutions, the plan is likely to be extremely expensive and will require partnerships with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, the Metro regional government, state leaders and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, among other agencies and stakeholders. It’s not clear whether Wheeler and Ryan have the support they need from other government agencies, nor where the money for their plan will come from.
Wheeler has called on leaders at Multnomah County and the state to help clear logistical roadblocks and pay for some of the increased services.
It’s also unclear who would run city-sanctioned camps, given that local service providers have balked at both the philosophy behind and the logistics involved in facilities as large as what Wheeler is proposing.
The mayor said he is talking with national homeless services providers who he thinks might be willing to operate large-scale sites in Portland. He said he is also leading a delegation of city and county officials to Los Angeles next week to meet with the group Urban Alchemy. It started up in San Francisco in 2018 and has contracted with the city of Los Angeles to provide restrooms and cleaning services to people living outdoors.
On Friday, the reception for the mayor’s plan, and in particular his call for help, consisted largely of statements supporting the mayor’s goals of addressing the homeless crisis but offering little in the way of specifics.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said she plans to meet with the mayor’s office next week.
“Multnomah County and the Joint Office are firmly committed to ending homelessness in our community,” she wrote, referring to the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a Portland-Multnomah County collaborative agency. “And the City’s statement today validates the urgent work the County is currently undertaking. As there are responsibilities unique to each jurisdiction, it is going to take every level of government working together.”
Multnomah County District Attorney’s Mike Schmidt offered a similarly lukewarm endorsement.
“I commend the City’s willingness to partner with the justice system to reduce barriers to housing, employment, and education while holding criminal offenders accountable,” he said. “I look forward learning more about this proposal and the opportunity for collaboration that follows.”
Wheeler also said he was looking to reallocate a portion of the money that voters approved for homeless services in 2020 through Metro’s Supportive Housing Services fund, so that more tax revenue could be dedicated to homeless services in Portland rather than suburban communities. Leaders of Metro, a multi-county regional government agency serving the greater Portland area, responded that, contractually, the money can not be renegotiated until July 2023.
“Mayor Wheeler is right that mental health, drug addiction and affordable housing services are under-funded in the Portland region. The pie is too small,” Metro Council President Lynn Peterson said in a statement. “If we truly want to act with urgency, rather than pitting different parts of the region against each other by threatening to move funds, we should be focused on doubling down on the work that just started and is quickly showing results.”
Privately, officials from the agencies the mayor’s plan hinges expressed deep skepticism and said they were hearing little in the way of support from their colleagues. And they grumbled that the plan seemed like a very public Hail Mary rushed out without firm details or without any concerted effort to ensure there would be widespread political support.
Spokespeople for Gov. Kate Brown did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
No more public camping?
The first and likely most controversial of the resolutions directs the city to work to end unsanctioned camping in the city.
Under the decision in the federal court case Martin v. Boise, municipalities cannot ban camping unless they have enough shelter for people sleeping outdoors. The resolution Portland leaders will consider states that they want to partner with Multnomah County to build at least three designated camping sites that will initially serve roughly 150 people each. The resolution says these camps could eventually house up to 500 people each. The city wants to phase out outdoor camping 18 months after getting funding for these sites. Officials have not said how much it will cost.
Opponents of large, government-run camps say they are inhumane and raise comparisons with internment camps. Proponents say they are the only way to ensure that the region’s most vulnerable men and women are connected with nonprofit groups and government agencies that provide the kind of mental health, addiction treatment and workforce development support needed to get off the streets for good.
Wheeler said an increasing percentage of people on the streets suffer from mental health or addiction problems.
Another resolution asks the city to partner with stakeholders including the Multnomah County District Attorney to create a diversion program focused on people experiencing homelessness who commit low-level crimes. That could include violating the city camping ban.
According to the resolution, the goal is to ensure that people living outdoors “are provided with multiple opportunities to avoid punitive sanctions of any kind.”
“To achieve this goal, the City will collaborate with stakeholders to design an enforcement approach utilizing multiple warnings and repeated invitations to participate in diversion before any civil or criminal penalty would be imposed,” the resolution states.
A third resolution focused on affordable housing calls on city officials to work to create 20,000 units of affordable housing by 2033 and build up a land bank of 400 publicly-owned sites on which multi-family housing could be built.
A fourth resolution asks the city to study ways to provide more work opportunities to people experiencing homelessness who aren’t able to work a traditional 9-to-5 job.
The mayor’s office has been working for months now on a strategy to address the proliferation of tents on city streets. Months ago, Wheeler aide and former Mayor Sam Adams floated a plan to build three shelters for 3,000 people, but the idea was dropped after skeptical elected officials and outraged homeless services providers condemned it as unfeasible and inhumane. The mayor’s office has continued to look for ways to fast-track the creation of large shelters, as polling has consistently showed voters are furious with the status quo and prepared for a more aggressive approach.
A campaign item
How to handle homelessness is also at the center of a contentious City Council race.
City Council candidate Rene Gonzalez, who has pledged to crack down on homeless camps and criminalize outdoor camping, has been polling well against incumbent Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who has argued people should not be forced off the streets unless there are shelter beds available for them. Right now, the city has a significant deficit in available shelter space.
With ballots due in less than three weeks, Wheeler also called on gubernatorial and Multnomah County chair candidates to support him in his request for state and city funding. OPB reached out to the five candidates in those races for their thoughts on the proposal.
Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who is running for county chair, said she shared the mayor’s “urgent desire” to address the crises and is waiting to hear more details.
Vega Pederson said there are steps the city and county could take today to improve the streets of Portland, including fast tracking the opening of a park in which people could live in their RVs, cracking down on illegal activities in homeless camps, and higher salaries for homeless services providers.
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who is also running for the county’s top office, gave Wheeler’s plan an enthusiastic endorsement.
“I am grateful to the Mayor for his multifaceted proposal to end the humanitarian crisis of unsheltered homelessness and I stand ready to partner,” she wrote.
Although in recent years the bulk of work on homelessness has fallen to city and county governments, the role the state should play has been a huge issue in the 2022 governor’s race. Betsy Johnson, a former Democrat running for governor without a party affiliation, hailed the announcement as a step forward to clean up Portland’s “tent cities,” while Democratic candidate Tina Kotek said it was a step in the right direction. Republican Christine Drazan said she was “pleased to see the city finally taking action.”
All said they were waiting to see if any action followed.
Hardesty said on Friday that she supports the idea of providing more options for Portlanders who need shelter but will wait to decide how to vote on the items that will soon reach the City Council.
“Every day, my heart is broken at our failure as a society to care for our most vulnerable and provide an adequate safety net,” she said at the city’s press conference. “I am not here to endorse or oppose this plan at this moment but to express appreciation that there are multiple proposals on the table.”
Commissioner Mingus Mapps said he supports Wheeler and Ryan’s plan, giving them a majority on the council. Commissioner Carmen Rubio also said she supports the push to better connect the city’s homeless population with services but also would be paying close attention to how his proposed policies are executed.
“Let me be clear: How we carry out any new approach with our houseless community will be critically important,” she said. “And I plan to be a vocal and active participant and partner in shaping those approaches and making sure they’re accountable to the values of respect, equity, dignity, service and compassion.”