PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The mayor of Portland, Oregon, plans to ban camping on city streets and move unhoused people to designated campsites, as the growing homeless population has become the top concern for the vast majority of residents.
“The magnitude and the depth of the homeless crisis in our city is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said Friday. “We need to move our scattered, vulnerable homeless population closer to the services that they need.”
The resolution would establish at least three large, designated outdoor camping sites, with the first opening within 18 months of securing funding. Wheeler didn't specify when the funding would be confirmed or how much the measure would cost.
The designated camping sites would initially be able to serve up to 125 people and would provide access to services such as food, hygiene, litter collection and treatment for mental health and substance abuse, Wheeler said. The sites could eventually serve 500 people.
Oregon’s homelessness crisis has been fueled by a housing shortage, the coronavirus pandemic and drug addiction.
More than 3,000 people are living without shelter in Portland, a 50% jump from 2019, and there are more than 700 encampments across the city, Wheeler said.
The resolution is one of several that Wheeler plans to introduce in the City Council next week in a bid to address the city’s homelessness and affordable housing crises.
Under the measures, social workers would direct people camping on the street to the city's designated camping sites. Police could arrest or cite people if they refuse to leave, Wheeler said. But the citations could be waived as part of a “services diversion program” that would allow people cited for low-level offenses, such as violating the camping ban, to receive mental health or substance abuse treatment instead of jail time.
Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House, a Portland nonprofit that provides social services for people experiencing homelessness, said the plan “has some positive elements” but that “there remain a lot of unanswered questions and unknown details,” particularly regarding the enforcement provision. Some unhoused people are resistant to living in large group environments due to previous negative experiences, he said.
“We're serving people that even in the most extreme winter and summer weather conditions will not seek out emergency shelter because they have such PTSD and anxiety about congregate shelter,” Kerman told The Associated Press in a phone interview, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. “They have felt unsafe in those environments. They may have even been victimized in those environments.”
Kerman also expressed concern that the criminal justice and mental health systems, already overwhelmed in Oregon, may buckle under the added strain amid a shortage of hospital staff, psychiatric beds and public defenders.
“Our state hospital, our local hospitals, our county jails are already filled past capacity with people on mental health holds who are in the criminal justice system,” he said.
A federal judge ruled last month that the Oregon State Hospital must limit the amount of time it can hold patients charged with crimes, in a bid to create space at the overcrowded facility for criminal defendants who need mental health treatment but are housed in jails.
Meanwhile, an ongoing public defender shortage due to workload, poor pay and late payments prompted criminal defendants to sue the state this year, saying it is violating their constitutional right to legal counsel and a speedy trial.
The Portland City Council declared a state of emergency on homelessness in 2015 and has extended it five times since then. The measure, set to expire in 2025, reduces the bureaucratic hurdles surrounding the creation of homeless shelters.
This year alone, Wheeler has issued four emergency declarations to address homelessness issues. Most recently in August, he expanded a declaration that prohibits camping along high-speed corridors such as highways to include key walking routes to K-12 schools.
Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Rush on Twitter.
Claire Rush, The Associated Press