The Bend city council recently agreed to revisit their protocols for deciding when to remove a homeless camp. Unlike some other cities in Oregon, Bend will aim not to sweep camps if at all possible. Instead, city council members are focused on creating at least 500 more shelter beds. Mayor pro-tem Gena Goodman-Campbell explains the city’s approach to homelessness.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Bend City Council recently agreed to revisit their protocols for when officials there will remove unsanctioned homeless camps. Gena Goodman-Campbell is Bend’s mayor pro-tem and a member of the Bend City Council. She joins us with more details. It’s good to have you on the show.
Gena Goodman-Campbell: Thanks. Dave. It’s good to be here.
Miller: How prevalent is camping on Bend streets or sidewalks or other public areas right now?
Goodman-Campbell: Well, I think it seems that it’s becoming more prevalent all the time and we are about to have our point in time count for the year in Deschutes County, in central Oregon, in about 10 days. We’ll have updated information then. But as of January 2021, there were around 1,000 people experiencing homelessness in Deschutes County on any given night. And 776 of those people were unsheltered, meaning that they are living in a car or in a tent on the street or another location that is not meant for human habitation.
Miller: Can you explain how the city has approached these encampments in the past?
Goodman-Campbell: It’s an increasing problem that frankly we hadn’t done a lot to address in the past, because it hadn’t been as much of a problem as it is now. And so we are kind of adapting to that changing situation. Over the summer we adopted a policy on unsafe camps in the public right of way, streets and sidewalks. And initially, I was really resistant to that policy because I’m just morally opposed to telling somebody that they can’t camp someplace on public property, if we can’t in the same sentence say, but you can camp here. We were faced with a situation on a specific street where people were camping literally in the roadway. And I realized that it was just one of those decisions where there was no good decision to be made there. It was a terrible situation, with people camping vulnerable to being run over by a vehicle. And we couldn’t allow that to continue either. So we’re taking an approach of trying to address- and where possible mitigate- any kind of public safety hazards for the people who are living unsheltered on the street, and also addressing other [issues] and mitigating where possible human waste and garbage piling up. So we’re trying to take a proactive approach. My focus has really been on trying to mitigate those issues that result from people living in a situation that is not conducive to meeting their basic human needs.
Miller: This past fall the Bend Humanity Coalition, a group that says it’s made up of parents, small business owners and just plain normal people, wrote a letter to the City Council and they basically asked you to crack down on these camps. They wrote “it is inhumane and unsafe to encourage people to live on the streets and other public property in Bend.” And they added that they want the city to commit to, quote, “enforce laws designed to deter camping on city and other public property.” Do you feel like the city is encouraging people to live on the streets right now?
Goodman-Campbell: No. And to be clear, we don’t have any laws that discourage people from sleeping on public property. It is not illegal to be homeless. And so right now, what we’re faced with is hundreds of people with no place to go.
Miller: You said that you are morally opposed to telling people that they can’t sleep in a particular camp if there’s not a place where they can go. But my understanding is, it’s not just moral objections that are at issue right now. There are also legal ones. Can you remind us what the Martin v. Boise decision, which came out of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals three years ago, means for cities like Bend?
Goodman-Campbell: That’s right. Basically, cities are really limited in the way that we can regulate sleeping in public places, without providing other places for people to shelter. And so it’s directly related to our ability to provide shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Basically, if we don’t have enough temporary or transitional shelter beds for people experiencing homelessness to go to, then we can’t tell them that it’s illegal, we can’t say that it’s illegal to sleep in public spaces.
Miller: Nevertheless, some other cities are sweeping camps at various times, including Portland, when they say public safety or refuse or other issues become serious enough. Are they doing something that Bend is not doing?
Goodman-Campbell: Each situation is different. I think that the scale of the problem in a city like Portland is obviously far greater than what we’re experiencing in Bend. I see similarities in the policies. But right now, Bend only has an administrative policy in place for when camps can be removed in the public right of way. So that’s specifically streets and sidewalks. It’s not more broadly on publicly owned land that the city owns. What we’re doing differently, I think, is really focusing on number one, creating shelter. We have a goal of creating 500 shelter spaces over the course of the 2021 through 2023 biennium, as a council just in the city of Bend, and then [secondly] focusing on mitigating the impacts wherever possible. Mitigating safety issues, if somebody is camped in the road, seeing if we can help them move to a safer location, or providing porta potties and making sure those are serviced regularly, providing dumpsters. That doesn’t always work, they aren’t always used, but I think it’s really important to try everything that we can to mitigate issues before we tell people that they can’t be in a certain place. Because it’s just common sense that if there’s no other place for them to go, then they’ll just go down the street, go to a different street, go to a different piece of land.
Miller: So let’s turn to those numbers for a second because you noted that there are about 700 people, I think that was the number you said, who are living unsheltered right now in Bend and there may be more clarity on some of these numbers after the next point in time count. But even if you’re able to, over the next year and a half or so, put in 500 new beds in various places, even that – which seems like a big undertaking – wouldn’t be enough to address the current need. Where would that leave you?
Goodman-Campbell: Well, I think it would leave us in a slightly better position than we’re in right now, but it’s going to be a long process. I think that we’ll just have to consider what other kinds of policy solutions are available to us, but also where we can tell people where they can or cannot camp. So the Ninth Circuit ruling, which is the case that everyone looks at – Martin vs the City of Boise – [says] the cities can’t ban camping at all times in all public places. So it’s possible that we may be in a position of saying, “we’ll just have to be really specific about where we say people cannot camp”. That I think is not an ideal solution, but I think that maybe [is] where we’re at, even if we do reach our really ambitious goal.
Miller: But does all this mean that in the nearer term, that the unsanctioned campsites or encampments or tents here and there on sidewalks, say, or in parks, that they’re likely to stay up indefinitely or at least for months or years? That in the short to medium term they’re not going anywhere?
Goodman-Campbell: Unfortunately, I suppose it does. Although we are working really hard on a variety of other solutions. It’s not just about shelters. I really, really appreciate your previous guests and the efforts to create shelters specifically for families and really appreciated Sherry sharing her personal story. That was just incredible. So we’re working on your typical shelters. We opened the first city-owned shelter that’s managed by a local nonprofit in the last year. We have acquired one hotel so far and we’re working on acquiring potentially another. We also are working on creating outdoor shelters, which I think is similar to the concept that Portland has around outdoor villages. And then at the basic level, we have a safe parking program that allows nonprofits or businesses or public entities to open up a parking lot with access to a bathroom and basic sanitation, and just have a place where people can know that they can sleep in their car and not be asked to move constantly. So we’re trying to provide a variety of ways to support people who are living outside. And then we also have an incredible network of nonprofits and service providers and churches that have opened up, even on a temporary basis to provide warming shelters or smoke shelters when we’ve had air quality issues. So I think we’re doing our best, but it needs to be a group effort because the city of Bend really can’t do any of this on our own.
Miller: Gena Goodman Campbell, thanks for your time today. I appreciate it.
Goodman-Campbell: Thank you Dave.
Miller: Gena Goodman-Campbell is the mayor pro-tem of Bend and a member of the Bend City Council.
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