Members of the Portland City Council were prepared Wednesday to hear public testimony from more than 200 speakers regarding Mayor Ted Wheeler’s and Commissioner Dan Ryan’s joint proposal to address the city’s homelessness crisis.
As of 7 p.m., testimony was still ongoing and expected to continue until about 10 p.m. No vote was taken Wednesday night. City commissioners are slated to vote on the proposals on Nov. 3.
While many speakers were largely supportive of the attempt to prioritize the crisis, fast-track affordable housing and form better relationships with county and state partners, speakers were split on one aspect of the package of proposals.
Many homeless advocates, unhoused individuals and nonprofit workers decried the proposals to ban unsanctioned camping citywide and force people to move into large city-run camp sites.
Realtors, business advocates and other lobbyists who spoke early in the meeting clashed with those views and largely told city commissioners that they supported the proposals in full.
The business-focused speakers that dominated at least the first hour of the meeting were promoted to the front of the line at the request of Ryan’s office, according to Cody Bowman, Wheeler’s spokesperson. They expressed exuberant support for the proposed camping ban that would push people and tents from the business corridors.
The prioritization of the business community came to light after Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty temporarily stopped testimony to ask why it appeared the speakers were stacked. Throughout the meeting, Hardesty, who is being challenged in the upcoming election, continued to advocate against the idea that people should face criminal penalties if they don’t agree to move into a sanctioned camp or accept behavioral health care.
“We are lacking over 40,000 mental health providers and (culturally specific) providers and we are going to require people to accept services that don’t exist, how do you do that?” Hardesty asked prior to the public testimony. “The vision is a good one if in fact it was based in our current reality.”
The five resolutions being discussed were:
- Push the city to more aggressively enable creation of 20,000 new affordable housing units in the next 10 years by reducing bureaucratic red tape, identifying additional public-private partnerships and lobbying for more state and federal funding.
- Offer more work opportunities for the city’s most vulnerable residents.
- Ban unsanctioned camping citywide and establish three large-scale official camping sites with sanitary and other services for between 150 and 500 people.
- Seek assistance from Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt to create a new diversion program that would eliminate citations and low-level offenses from homeless people’s records if they agree to mental health or addiction treatment.
- Formalize a request to the state, county and other government partners to help reach these goals.
Kaia Sand, director of the homeless services nonprofit Street Roots, was invited by Hardesty to speak before public testimony began. Sand said she believed the camping ban would “placate some constituents while making life unbearable for others.”
“I am glad to see you have stretched out these goals for affordable housing … and set intention on working together … But I need to make sure you understand extended engagement with people whose lives your policy impacts is needed,” Sand said.
Sand said Street Roots and a long list of other nonprofits spent time engaging with unsheltered people and learned that nearly all said they never heard from the outreach workers that Wheeler kept referring to when he said two outreach workers personally talked to unhoused people who said they would be eager to move to the sanctioned encampments.
“I urge council to separate out the camping ban from the rest of the proposals so that it is not a rushed decision,” Sand said.
Ben Kopsa, a housing case worker from Transition Projects, one of the largest shelter providers in Portland, disputed Wheeler’s claim that hundreds of shelter beds sit empty in the city each night. He estimated at most, six beds are available each night but typically just one to two beds are up for grabs.
“Regardless of your claims that (the camping ban) is not meant to criminalize homelessness, it will,” he said. “It’s quite clear that those with money and making money for the city are the priority here.”
Jennifer Parrish Taylor, policy director at the Urban League of Portland, which offers housing services, said she fears the camping ban will increase arrests of Black Portlanders who are already more likely to be homeless, more likely to be arrested and more likely to not be able to afford the city’s median rent than their white counterparts.
Nicole Pater, who has been unhoused for three years in Portland, said she has not been able to access shelter. Commissioner Mingus Mapps asked Pater for her contact information so that city workers could help her navigate the system.
“A caring society offers safe places for people who can’t conform so it is not a one size fits all,” she said. “I can’t get shelter now and saying I won’t be legally to camp and I will be forced into a situation I know will be dangerous” is not reassuring.
Pater and others stressed that sheltering more than 100 people together in either an indoor or outdoor area will be traumatizing for many who have previously experienced harassment or a lack of safety in shelters.
Many housing advocates voiced support for using city funds to bolster rent assistance, which has proven successful, they said, instead of funding more shelter areas.
“Every day I work with people dealing with barriers to housing, such as their lack of rental history, income, criminal history,” said Meg Bender-Stephanksi, a social worker who helps people access housing. “We fight tooth and nail to get them into housing. An apartment listed as low-income last month was $1,650 a month – that’s not low income – and landlords routinely break the law with their screening criteria.”
Others expressed doubt that the sanctioned camp sites would truly offer the supportive services that people need such as medical help for people going through withdrawals, harm reduction and a safe space for those in recovery.
“Have you talked to houseless people?” asked Jennifer Kruszewski, a Portland resident. “Have you asked them what they need or what housing would work best for them? You mention fentanyl deaths but there are not enough harm reduction services.”
Steven Jackson, a blind Portlander, said while he empathizes with those experiencing homelessness, he is eager to see sidewalks rid of tents since it is challenging for him to walk around the city.
“I am not saying the (homeless) people are wrong, I am saying the cluttered sidewalks are wrong and we need to get people help,” he said
William Grippo, a real estate broker in Portland, said he doesn’t think it is humane or compassionate to allow unsanctioned camping throughout the city. Grippo, who experienced homelessness as a child nearly 50 years ago and then again as a young adult, said many residents and small businesses are feeling under attack.
“I had a (residential) tenant call me last month because someone passed out in front of her door,” Grippo said. “I didn’t know what to do and she didn’t know what to do. This ordinance gives us hope and gives us real solutions.”
Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian/OregonLive. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.