Businesses, houseless advocacy groups clash over how to approach unhoused persons in Portland
On Nov. 3, a $27 million plan to ban street camping and force houseless people into city-run campsites was approved by the Portland City Council. The council began moving forward with securing funding two weeks later.
This five-resolution proposition and spending package was drafted by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan. It was passed unanimously with the exception of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who voted no on the camping ban.
“(The city needs) to return our parks and sidewalks back to our city,” Ryan said in response to Hardesty’s rejection. “Our children, our families want a place to play. Our elders want to go on a safe stroll in our neighborhoods.”
There are currently over 3,000 unhoused people living in roughly 700 encampments around Portland according to the New York Post, which marks a 150% increase in the houseless population since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic, a housing shortage and high drug addiction rates have all contributed to this crisis. The Portland City Council declared a state of emergency on houselessness in 2015 and extended it five times before this proposal.
In a press conference on Oct. 21, Wheeler announced the proposition’s resolutions and acknowledged the limited efficacy of past efforts to curb public camping. These included issuing emergency orders to ban camping along dangerous roadways and school routes as well as increasing alternative camping options.
“To be completely transparent, it has not worked,” Wheeler said to the Arizona Daily Sun. “We have to do something and we need to do something different.”
Prior to this proposal, some residents with disabilities filed a federal class-action lawsuit on the grounds that the city is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by allowing encampments that prevent them from being able to use sidewalks.
The first three city encampments are expected to open within 18 months, but it has not yet been declared where they will be built. Camps are initially expected to house 150 people each, but eventually the city intends for them to be able to accommodate up to 500. These sites will provide access to food, hygiene and treatment for mental health and substance abuse, and will have 24-hour management. If houseless people refuse to move into the new encampments, they can be arrested or cited by police.
“It is critically important to realize that fining or arresting people suffering on the streets solves nothing,” Hardesty said to The Oregonian. “No city plan for shelter expansion should involve sending people to jail because they live in extreme poverty or may be suffering from a mental or behavioral health issue in a state that ranks at the bottom of the country in providing those needed services.”
During late October, the city council held a seven-hour public meeting to discuss the proposed plan, but business interests who favored the proposed plan dominated the first hour. A coalition of houseless advocacy groups such as Street Roots, AfroVillage PDX, Blanchet House, Gather: Make: Shelter, Ground Score Association, Hygiene4All, JOIN and others held their own meeting in the following days to create an uninhibited forum for unhoused people to speak to Wheeler and Ryan.
“Three camps of 500 people!” participant Becky Lange said at the meeting. “An internment camp is a group where you put people who have not committed a crime, but they’re a member of a group that’s found distasteful or unwanted. Sounds like what you’re doing here.”
Many who oppose the plan believe that it can be dangerous to crowd so many people together into one area. Vince Masiello is a resident at the Right 2 Dream homeless village, which accommodates about 40 people a night.
“I believe making camps about that size is a lot safer,” Masiello said to Oregon Public Broadcast. “It’s a lot less work to deal with as far as getting so many people to get along in a place with only so many resources.”
However, supporters of the plan are adamant that these aggressive efforts are necessary. In addition to banning street camping and consolidating people in large camps, the city also plans to create 20,000 new affordable housing units in the next decade, offer more work opportunities for low income residents and create a new diversion program that would remove low level offenses from houseless peoples’ criminal records on the condition that they agree to mental health or drug abuse treatment.
The budget proposal includes an amendment for the city to withhold $7 million from a regional agency that addresses homelessness unless county leaders agree to allocate $15 million towards eviction prevention, rental assistance and legal defense funds.
According to OPB, “While $7 million is a fraction of the agency’s $255.5 million budget, the move is a way of strong-arming county leaders into helping fund Wheeler and Ryan’s plan to force people into city-sanctioned campsites.”
This budgetary strategy reflects how the plan is not isolated to city government; it requires cooperation from county, regional and state partners as well as outside law enforcement agencies.
The financial composition of the plan includes $17 million to build and operate camps for one year and $5.5 million to increase staffing in multiple city departments and programs. Wheeler discussed the spending package with Governor-elect Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Chair-elect Jessica Vega Pederson and reported both of their support.
Portland is not the only city to respond to a housing crisis with similar measures. Austin, Texas and Denver, for example, have also passed ordinances that ban public camping and establish city-run campsites. Bend, Oreg. will follow suit to restrict public camping beginning in March.
Although Wheeler and Ryan’s plan has been largely supported by city and state governments, it is still highly controversial.