Portland leaders approve plan to ban homeless camping, create large government-sponsored shelters
Portland leaders approved a controversial plan Thursday to ban illegal camping in the city as voters grapple with the region’s continuing homelessness crisis.
The plan, comprised of five resolutions, would create six large city-approved campgrounds, build 20,000 units of affordable housing and allow Portland leaders to ban illegal camping on city streets. Following an amendment introduced by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, the council agreed to limit the size of the camps to 250 people, rather than the previously proposed maximum of 500.
The proposal, which would eventually require everyone living on the streets to move into shelters, has proven deeply controversial. Critics, including many homeless service providers and activists, denounced the resolutions as a thinly veiled attempt to criminalize homelessness. Supporters are cautiously praising the plan as a necessary step to clean up the city — if the city can actually build the amount of shelters needed to clear the streets of tents.
The plan was created by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan. Ryan oversees Portland’s housing bureau. Rubio and Commissioner Mingus Mapps joined them in voting for all five resolutions. Only Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty voted against some of the resolutions.
Hardesty, who faces a tough re-election bid next week against a challenger who has called for a tougher approach to camping, voted against the resolution seeking to ban it – the most controversial part of the package so far. She called it “cruel and inhumane.”
“Many people told me that it would be politically smart to vote for this resolution. And honestly, it would be easy for me to do that,” she said. “But to say that we’re going to magically wave a wand in 18 months and there will be no more street camping is not realistic. These resolutions do not contain code changes, do not identify funding or land, and do not have agreements between jurisdictional partners.”
And the shelter and housing part of the plan is likely to be extremely expensive. The city’s budget office said the city-approved camps could cost between $3 million and $6.8 million a year — and that’s if the city were to build just three camps for 150 people. The city’s budget authors say building affordable housing units could cost about $9.8 billion.
The proposal will also require a partnership with the Metro Regional Government, state leaders and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, among other stakeholders. It remains unclear whether the Council will receive the necessary support and money from other agencies to realize its vision. Multnomah County and Metro leaders have they said they support the mayor’s goals reverse the homeless crisis in the region, but has yet to engage.
Wheeler said Thursday he hoped the package would get the region’s leaders to work together, calling it a “necessary first step.”
“We should have a strong mental health care network, and we don’t,” he said. “My hope is that this conversation — if nothing else — pushes the conversation to the forefront where it should have been years ago.”
More, smaller camps
Thursday’s meeting was an opportunity for council members to make changes to the plan after nearly 200 people testified about it last week. Public testimony stretched for nearly seven hours with Portlanders scathing divided on the plan.
Hardesty and Rubio introduced the most important changes on Thursday.
Most council members supported Rubio’s amendment to reduce the number of camps. Instead of the city trying to build three camps with a maximum of 500 people, Rubio proposed having a maximum of six camps with a limit of 250 people. Homeless service providers have warned that shelters with 500 people could quickly become unruly and unsafe.
“My goal here is to make it known that we recognize and hear the concerns about the size and the compelling testimony that we heard,” Rubio said.
Wheeler was the only council member to vote against the change, saying he wanted to “maintain the flexibility behind the original proposal.”
Hardesty introduced 10 amendments. Some of her demands – such as a requirement that camps larger than 150 get special approval from the council and an incentive to build new shelters within six months of securing funding – were not supported by any of her colleagues. Other amendments — including her request that the camps be spread evenly across Portland and be built with facilities that accommodate the needs of people with disabilities — became part of the final package.
Her introduction of the proposed amendments included an attack on Ryan, who had previously opposed the mayor’s idea of building large homeless encampments.
While introducing the change regarding the size of the campgrounds, she read an email Ryan sent Wheeler on Oct. 7, 2021, in which he wrote that he had “serious concerns about the concept of creating outdoor camping areas with large populations. ” Ryan’s email was in response to a memo sent by aide to the mayor and former mayor Sam Adams, outlining a plan to create up to three homeless shelters for 1,000 people.
“I’m curious Commissioner, how have you changed so radically in a year?” she asked Ryan, who was next to her in the council chamber.
“This was a thoughtful dialogue with a real plan that involved many other stakeholders in the dialogue and with the services. So today we are in a different place than when it was written”, he answered briefly.
Anxiety about being in a hurry
Thursday’s vote comes despite the refusal of the Oregon ACLU and Street Roots, a homeless advocacy group, to delay the vote. The ACLU sent the city council a legal notice earlier Thursday warning of the plan it may be illegal.
Federal courts have said municipalities can’t ban illegal camping if they don’t have enough available shelter beds. City leaders hope to get around the decision by building enough shelter beds for everyone living outside.
In a legal notice Thursday, the ACLU warned the panel that they could be violating the landmark Martin v. Boise, Idaho ruling. The group also accused city leaders of prioritizing business and real estate voices and “muffling the voices of everyday Oregonians and directly affecting the homeless … in violation of the viewpoint neutrality required by the First Amendment.”
The accusation refers to the order of testimony from last week’s Council session. Ryan asked some Portland Realtors and brokers to speak at the start of the seven-hour council meeting in support of the measure, but failed to clarify that the speakers were invited to testify. While it is common for commissioners to invite someone to the council to present their opinion on pending resolutions, it is usually made clear that those people have been invited to speak by a member of the council.
“This was not a fair, democratic process — dangerous for people experiencing homelessness,” said Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots. “Money seems to buy access.”
Sand joined many homeless advocates Thursday in asking the council to delay the vote until there is more time for people, especially homeless Portlanders, to have their say.
But others, like Jason Bolt of Revant Optics, a lens manufacturing company based in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, urged the council to move faster. He said he wanted the council to pass the resolution in hopes it could improve safety issues near his business.
He said his employees can no longer use the sidewalks near his facility because of the grocery store, RVs and tents blocking the sidewalk. He said city leaders ignored his complaints and the police did nothing about the encampment when he called him. He warned that he was seriously considering leaving Portland if the camp was not resolved within a month.
“For me, it’s just a security issue. I understand that there are people who live in such situations [who] they also have security issues. …. Let me be clear. This is not us against them,” he said. “But we have to think Maslow’s hierarchy, Is not it? If we don’t have security, we can’t be creative.”
“Nothing on the table today is going to solve your problems in 30 days,” Hardesty warned him.
“I know,” Bolt replied. “It was an opportunity to talk to you.”
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