Think Out Loud

New rules aimed at homeless encampments in Portland could undermine trust, according to researcher

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
May 21, 2021 6:49 p.m. Updated: May 21, 2021 9:44 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, May 21

The tents of unhoused people who have set up encampments along a Portland sidewalk. At least seven tents are visible in the picture.

Last year, the city of Portland cleared 70-100 makeshift homes of people living near Laurelhurst Park.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB


The city of Portland is adopting a “more assertive approach” to dispersing encampments of people experiencing homelessness. The new guidelines allow city contractors to more quickly clear out campsites due to fire risk, biohazardous materials, reported criminal activity and tents blocking the sidewalk, among other reasons. This is an abrupt change in policy from the past 15 months when the city has adhered to CDC guidance, which cautioned against dispersing homeless camps to avoid spreading COVID-19.

Marisa Zapata is the director of the Portland State University Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative. She says requiring people to move out of these camps will promote destabilization, erode trust in service providers and lead to more criminalization of homelessness in general. Zapata joins us.

Dave Miller: The city of Portland recently announced it’s going to take a more assertive approach to dispersing homeless camps. The new guidelines allow city contractors to more quickly clear out campsites due to fire risk, biohazards or reported criminal activity, among other reasons. The CDC has cautioned against dispersing homeless camps to avoid spreading Covid 19. For much of the pandemic, the city adhered to that guidance. The sweeps did begin again in July, but at a lower rate. Marissa Zapata joins us now to talk about this recent change. She is a director of the Portland State University homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. She is also on the coordinating board for the group, A Home for Everyone. Marissa, welcome back.

Marisa Zapata: Thank you.

Dave Miller: What went through your mind when you heard about this policy shift this week?

Marisa Zapata: My first concern of course was Covid and what this would mean and look like. But it was also really confusing because the announcement of the change of protocol around sweeps was also rolled into this discussion of sanctioned camps and moving people to camps. And then a conflation about whether the orientation and focus was on larger encampments. Right? So places where 40 or 50 people are living in tents, mostly in natural areas. Or is it the focus on downtown where you have one or two or three people living close together? And so it’s actually taken quite a bit for me to try to filter out what is the actual change in protocol and what are these other conversations that are happening?

Dave Miller: Well, there’s a lot going on, including even things at the county level. So let’s take these one by one. I do want to hear more about your thoughts about the news that Willamette Week reported about the possibility of more “safe sleeping sites” around the city. So we’ll get to that. But sticking with this policy, which could mean, or maybe it won’t, more sweeps, to the extent that you understand what the city is proposing and could do very soon, what do you think the overall effect of a more aggressive approach to homeless encampments? What would that mean?

Marisa Zapata: I think it all comes down to how they choose to actually implement what they’ve written down versus things that you hear on the side. Right? So this is one of these changes that I see as both potentially devil in the details or Jesus and the details. Are they going to actually be stepping up and using things like criminalization, criminal behavior to simply disperse tents? Or are they actually really looking at things like public health impact of untreated sewer or things like fire? Right. Risk of fire. And have they actually been in those camps trying to lessen those impacts? And so the memo that went out the detail, what they were trying to do indicated that these were larger impact camps, right, that are assessed on a scorecard. And then they’ve been in there trying to reduce the impact of the camps and have found that they have not been successful. They go on to say that really, this is again, this focus on eight or more tents in one site. And so does that mean if you’re a 40 person tent, if you split up into 8, 10 units and you dispersed to a certain degree, does that take care of the impact? Or is the city just going to be trying to use this as a mechanism to increase sweeps, period? So I think a lot of it will just depend on who’s in charge of the rollout and what purposes the rollout is actually being used. My biggest concern is that it’s supposed to start next week. And that raises a lot of questions about what will this actually look like or mean?

Dave Miller: Under the new rules, city officials would be able to or contractors were able to put up an immediate eviction notice, if any one of a few criteria that you were mentioning were met, including, say, feces in the area, biohazards like needles, repeated reports of violence or if the Fire Bureau says the site poses an extreme risk of fire. Those are obviously really different situations, each one of those. But what do you want to happen if people report any of those various things?

Marisa Zapata: What I would like to happen is that people would have access to housing faster. Right? And so this is also one of the things that I think we’re not having a good public policy discussion about is: are we trying to mitigate the impact of having people have to live outside? Right, homelessness damages the people who are having to live outside, it damages the natural and built environment. So are we actually trying to get to the housing faster if we’re thinking about and again, I’d like to see really what it looks like to have tried to mitigate impact. Right? How often are they cleaning out Porta potties? What does trash collection really look like? And of course, what do people who were unsheltered actually say would help them? Last year we surveyed people who are living unsheltered and they said that they would actually like to go to motels. And of course we know that is still an option under Fema, right, Fema, will still reimburse us for motels. And we have I think either six or eight motels in service, but will the city next week be renting out more motels as they do choose to post and remove sites?

Dave Miller: The city council has couched this in terms of public safety. They wrote: these new protocols, reprioritized public health and safety among houseless Portlanders and aim to improve sanitary conditions until we have additional shelter beds and housing available. What do you make of this argument which is specifically about the health and safety of houseless Portlanders?

Marisa Zapata: I mean, I think that’s an important consideration, right? We don’t want people living in situations where you’re going to have a hepatitis outbreak or that there is increased fire risk. But again,

I think that not asking and working with the people who are unsheltered about what it looks like to manage that risk while making sure that we’re moving into housing. I’m really big on this motel argument because we have seen motels playing a role in other states, particularly around being able to move people from motels into housing, right? And we don’t see that, the impact reduction team is doing great work connecting people to caseworkers and referring to shelter. We know we don’t have enough shelter beds. And so what can we actually do to make that pipeline, both that people are healthier while they’re forced to live unsheltered while they’re also trying to get into housing. I think the other public health consideration that we also have to think about is the health risk to having to move people. Right? And so even if, you know, the concern from hepatitis or any other diseases ranks higher than the Covid risk or the flu risk or the pneumonia risk, those other risks are still there. And so again, I think when we get really focused on, what are we going to do about this particular camp or this particular  settlement of tents, we’re missing this question of, well, what are we going to do to actually get people to be able to live inside?

Dave Miller:  The city does say that it’s currently looking for alternative sites for shelters and sanctioned encampments. What’s the time frame for that?


Marisa Zapata: I have no idea. And I have a lot of questions about what that will look like and what that means. We’ve got of course a court case Martin v. Boise that said, you cannot criminalize people for sleeping outside if you do not have adequate shelter beds. And I have yet to see the city really take a position clearly on what it will mean to have organized or sanctioned camps, right? So, if you have organized or sanctioned camps, will people be forced to go to them or risk criminal, criminalization arrest?

Dave Miller: I want to make sure that I understand what you’re saying. So this was, this was a case that came in 2018 from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and it came from Boise, if I’m not mistaken. So, your fear is that if the city, say, sanctions some camping sites or tent sites somewhere within the city limits of Portland, that will give them legal cover to be able to say, kick people out of downtown, because numerically there are enough places for them to be able to sleep outside. Did I understand that correctly?

Marisa Zapata: Absolutely. That is my greatest fear. And that was concerns I raised when the new policy went into effect called the Shelter to Housing Continuum, where they actually were looking at: how do we designate campsites? My other real concern that I also don’t think the public is fully aware of is that usually things that are going to be run by the city are going to have some sort of requirements, some sort of rules, barriers to entry. And again, that is important. And then I’m going to want to be clear that I think that organized camp sites could be very helpful for some people, but the people who are gaining the most attention from housed people are very unlikely to be served in an organized tent camp. And so, if we’re thinking about what problem we’re trying to solve for, right, if it’s trying to really support people who are having severe mental health crises, they’re not going to be moving to an organized camp. And that puts us back into where should we be spending our time and resources and how do we get the housing part to really be the central thing that we’re talking about to get people who are in these situations into housing faster.

Dave Miller: If you’re just tuning in we’re talking right now with Marissa Zapata, she is the director of the Portland State University Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. She’s also on the coordinating board for A Home for Everyone. We did reach out to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office to request the mayor, himself or someone else from the city to be a part of this conversation and we were told that no one was available. So as you mentioned, this is slated to go into effect, this new policy of potentially faster and and more frequent sweeps of homeless camps next week, that, it seems, unless something extraordinary happens over the weekend, that will be before a big increase in the number of any kind of, of sanctioned campsites somewhere. I don’t think you’re a lawyer, but is it your sense that a big increase in sweeps telling people you cannot be here, that that would be, without an increase in shelter beds, would that be legal in your understanding, given this legal precedent of the Boise case?

Marisa Zapata: I think it requires people to say you can’t be here and you can be anywhere. And so this is what I was trying to get out earlier, right? If they are saying that this 40 person camp cannot exist anymore, are they then saying or just not saying anything about where else you could go or are they saying you can’t go anywhere else in the city? And I don’t think that that is the plan, right. And so, you know, is this kind of the look the other way, go be with eight friends in a different area than this one big camp that we now have to remediate the land on and is raising a public health risk for you. So I think you need that other component of saying you can’t be here and you can’t be anywhere else.

Dave Miller: But what does your research or other people’s research tell you about where people do go, in general, when their sites are swept?

Marisa Zapata: They just go to the next closest place to live. And I don’t know that this is going to address the issue of people coming back to places I know, talking to people in the city and elsewhere, up and down the coast. You know, people pick their sites for particular reasons. And so, people will often come back to where they were or near to where they were. And so, you know, can the city, you know, kind of guide people to say, hey, you know, we really can’t or you shouldn’t be here, but if you could just be over there, that would be a bit better for the following reasons. Or this is - the impact reduction program does go out and work with camps and say, here are the things that are really raising your score. Can we work to get them down? And my understanding is that they have found when they get over a certain number of tents, it just becomes impossible to reduce that impact. And so, to what degree are we assertively helping people organize in a way that works for them without raising it to the point that it’s an officially city sanctioned camp that would kick in requirements for how the city runs things.

Dave Miller: I’m curious what you find to be the overall effectiveness or lack of effective effectiveness with this program. According to city data that I looked at from January of 2019 to February of this year, outreach workers from this program have gone out to so-called high impact camping sites, meaning larger ones or ones where there have been more reports of issues. They’ve gotten about 44% of people at those sites into shelters and a much lower percentage, 4% received housing referrals. Based on those numbers and others you’ve seen, is this program at least to some extent a success?

Marisa Zapata: So the program is not trying to solve homelessness. The trial program is trying to reduce the impact of homelessness on people experiencing homelessness, on house community members and on the land itself. So in the sense that any incidental ability to get people into shelter or into housing is great, right, that’s a successful outcome. But again, like the orientation is not to solve homelessness, right? It’s to reduce the impact and that assumes that we have and will continue to have homelessness. So I think it really just depends on what you’re defining as success.

Dave Miller: Do you have a sense for what this new policy means in terms of if it’s basically going to take us back to a return to the pre-pandemic approach to how the city is responding to unsanctioned camping or if there’s something truly new about this.

Marisa Zapata: I think the new things are really this addition of fire and fire concern. And then the addition of very clear call-out to biohazard and sewage, and so if we can shift it to being clear about what public health looks like and what those concerns are, I think that that is actually helpful. People who are houseless, don’t want to be living in health risk situations either. That’s why they would like housing. But you know, I don’t know, again, I don’t know if we’ve actually fully thought through: what does trash collection or what does providing access to hand washing stations and toilets look like If we’re talking about eight person tent encampments around the region. I always like to point out that as a housed person, someone comes and collects my garbage weekly and you know, I have access to a toilet whenever I want. And so if those become some of the biggest things we’re worried about, how are we helping people actually remove those things? And then if we aren’t going to be, if we do that, we’re looking at considerable costs. And again, would that time be better spent and that money be better spent trying to create access to housing faster?

Dave Miller: So, let’s turn to that before we say goodbye, because that’s been obviously your main point in this conversation and others we’ve had. Instead of focusing on some small way to reduce the harm of this one camp, we need to talk about housing and get more people into actual housing. That is the only solution. We’re talking a couple years now into what, what is supposed to be this broad, region-wide concerted effort now with a lot more money than ever before to try to address this. Do you think that it is, it’s working? I mean, the idea is to all come together at the county’s level and at the city level and to put a lot more money towards this in a truly unified way. Is that happening?

Marisa Zapata:I think that there is some great planning that is happening. The thing that I find consistently missing at the regional level in terms of coordination, and I want to be clear that I don’t necessarily think this is the responsibility of Metro or the three counties. I think it’s everyone’s responsibility along with the cities, is to really talk about the housing component of this. Right?

And so being clear about what is taking accessing housing so long? Right. So is it that we aren’t being able to access luxury units and the Support of Housing measure that has just passed through Metro that will go into effect this year will be allowing providers to pay up to 120% of median household income, which should increase access to luxury units. Will that be successful? We don’t know yet. What are the, what will that potentially do to the rest of the market in terms of access for people who are lower income? We don’t know yet, but that’s a particular step that says we’re trying to access those luxury units. There is no discussion about vacant units and what we could do with those around the region. No discussion about what it means to have a gluttony of luxury units online, and no real accounting to really think through if we’re going to have to build affordable housing, how do we, what are the barriers to making that happen more quickly? And so I think that those are the things that we really need to be thinking about that I don’t see really being taken up in a broad way and against some of its that, you know, we’ll see what happens in the next year as the Support of Housing Services measure money goes out to allow access to these higher end units. But we’re still, we should still be planning and talking about how do we make, particularly how to build that housing happen faster? And I do think it’s also important to know, we’re not discussing the eviction moratorium that will happen on, will expire on july 1st. And so the playing field changes radically for all of this, if we suddenly look at mass evictions, we look at mass evictions where developers and landlords are selling naturally occurring affordable housing, right? Like that is not even on the radar as far as I can tell in terms of public discourse.

Dave Miller: Marissa, thanks very much for your time today. I appreciate it.

Marisa Zapata: Thank you.

Dave Miller: Marisa Zapata is the director of the Portland State University Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative. She’s an associate professor of urban planning at PSU and she’s on the coordinating board of A Home for Everyone.

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