Portland leaders approved a controversial plan Thursday to ban camping without permits in the city as part of an ongoing homeless crisis.
The plan, made up of five proposals, would create six large city-sanctioned campgrounds, build 20,000 units of affordable housing and allow Portland leaders to ban unauthorized camping on city streets. The House agreed to an amendment proposed by Commissioner Carmen Rubio to increase the size of the encampment to 250 people, up from the proposed 500.
Ultimately, the proposal to require all those living on the streets to move into shelters proved highly controversial. Critics, including many homeless service providers and activists, denounced the proposals as a thinly veiled attempt to criminalize homelessness. Proponents have cautiously hailed it as a necessary step to clean up the city — if the city can build the amount of shelter needed to clear the tent streets.
Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan designed the plan. Ryan oversees the Portland Housing Office. Rubio and Commissioner Mingus Maps voted yes on all five proposals. Only Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty opposed some of the decisions.
Hardesty, who is facing a tough re-election bid next week against a challenger who has called for a tougher approach on the camp, voted no on a resolution to ban him — the most controversial part of the package so far. She called it “cruel and inhumane.”
“I’ve had a lot of people tell me that voting yes on this proposal is politically smart. And to be honest, that would be easy for me to do,” she said. But it is not true to say that in 18 months we will magically swing by and there will be no more street camping. These resolutions have no code changes, no funding or land allocations, and no agreements between legal partners.
Both the shelter and housing components of the plan can be very expensive. The city’s budget office said city-approved campgrounds could cost between $3 million and $6.8 million a year — and that’s if the city builds just three campgrounds that serve 150 people. City budget writers say it will cost about $9.8 billion to build affordable housing.
The proposal calls for a partnership with metro regional government, county leaders and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners and other stakeholders. It is unclear whether the council will get the support and funding it needs from other agencies to make their vision a reality. Multnomah County and Metro leaders say they support the mayor’s goals to address the region’s homeless crisis, but have yet to commit to any funding.
Wheeler said Thursday that the package would force regional leaders to come together and called it an “important first step.”
“We need to have a strong mental health safety net and we don’t,” he said. “I hope this conversation – if nothing else – pushes the conversation to the forefront where it was years ago.”
More, smaller camps
Thursday’s meeting was an opportunity for council members to introduce changes to the plan after nearly 200 people testified last week. Public testimony stretched over seven hours, and Portlanders were deeply divided over the plan.
Hardesty and Rubio introduced the most important changes Thursday.
A majority of the House supported Rubio’s amendment to make the camps smaller. Instead of the city trying to build three camps with a maximum of 500 people, Rubio proposed six camps with a maximum of 250 people. Homeless service providers have warned that a 500-person shelter could quickly grow unruly and unsafe.
“My goal here is to make it clear that we understand and hear the concerns about the amount and the compelling testimony that we’ve 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 improvements. Some of her demands – such as the push for the more than 150 camps to get special approval from the council and to build the new shelters within six months when funding is available – were not supported by any of her colleagues. Other reforms — including her request that camps be spread more evenly around Portland and be built with facilities to meet the needs of people with disabilities — became part of the final package.
The introduction of the proposed reforms included a jab at Ryan, who previously opposed the mayor’s idea of building large homeless encampments.
When announcing a change related to the size of the campground, Ryan read an email sent to Wheeler on Oct. 7, 2021, in which he wrote, “There are serious concerns about the concept of creating outdoor camping zones with high population density.” Ryan’s email was in response to a memo sent by mayoral aide and former mayor Sam Adams outlining plans to create three, 1,000-person homeless shelters.
“I’m curious, Commissioner, how did you manage to change so much in one year?” she asked Ryan, who was next to her at Council Days.
“This is a thoughtful discussion with a real plan that includes many other stakeholders and services in the discussion. So we are in a different place than what was written today,” he responded.
Concern about rushing
Thursday’s vote comes despite calls from the ACLU of Oregon and Street Roots, a homeless advocacy group, to delay the vote. The ACLU sent a legal notice to the City Council earlier Thursday warning that the plan could be illegal.
Federal courts have ruled that municipalities cannot ban camps without a permit unless they have enough shelter beds. City leaders hope to pass the resolution by building enough shelter beds for all the people living outside.
In Thursday’s legal notice, the ACLU warned the council they could violate the Idaho ruling Martin v. Boyce. The group also accused city leaders of prioritizing business and real estate votes, and “by taking out the voices of everyday Oregonians and directly affecting the homeless … they are exercising the neutrality of opinion required by the First Amendment.”
The lawsuit refers to a testimony order from last week’s council meeting. At the start of the seven-hour council meeting, Ryan asked some Portland realtors and brokers to speak, but could not clarify whether the speakers had been invited to testify. While it is common for commissioners to invite someone to the council to comment on pending decisions, it is clear that normally these people are invited to speak by the council member.
“This was not a fair, democratic process – for people who are at risk of homelessness,” said Kaya Sand, executive director of Street Roots. “Money seems to buy access.”
Sand joined several homeless advocates Thursday in asking the council to delay a vote until there is more time to weigh in on people, especially homeless Portlanders.
But others, like Jason Bolt of Revant Optics, a lens company based in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, urged the council to move quickly. He said he wanted the council to pass the resolution in the hope that it would improve safety issues near the work.
He said workers could not use the sidewalks adjacent to the facility because of the sidewalk closure. He said his complaints were ignored by city officials and that when he called the police, nothing was done about the encampment. He warned that if the camp didn’t hear from him within a month, he would seriously consider leaving Portland.
“It’s just a safety issue for me. I understand that there are people who live in those situations. [who] They also have security issues. …. Let me be perfectly clear. This is not us with them,” he said. “But we have to think about Maslow’s hierarchy, right? We cannot be creative if we are not safe.
“There is nothing on the table that will resolve your issues 30 days from now,” Hardisty warned.
“I know,” Bolt replied. “It was a chance to talk to you.”