Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has banned people experiencing homelessness from camping next to freeways and along high-crash corridors.
Wheeler issued an emergency order, effective 3 p.m. Friday, that tasked the city’s urban camping team with stopping people from setting up tents near busy roadways. The mayor said this is the first in a series of executive actions he plans to take in coming weeks to address the city’s homelessness crisis, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
The order follows a report by the Portland Bureau of Transportation that found 70% of pedestrians who were killed by cars last year were homeless. While Wheeler framed the move as a “matter of urgency” and a humane follow-up to the jarring statistics, critics accused Wheeler of using the document as political cover for a harmful crackdown on outdoor camping.
Wheeler acknowledged the proposal was in the works before the report’s release, but said the grim findings underscored the need to act fast.
“We have continuously witnessed unsanctioned camping in clearly unsafe locations, sometimes jarringly close to roads and freeways,” Wheeler said at a press conference Friday. “You don’t need to be a traffic engineer to sense that that’s not safe.”
Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees the city’s transportation bureau, said she was not consulted on the ordinance. Wheeler’s chief-of-staff, Bobby Lee, said commissioners’ offices were given the order on Thursday, though the mayor’s office received little feedback.
The mayor’s plan quickly generated outrage among homeless and transportation advocates. Opponents contend the mayor’s action will do little aside from moving vulnerable people around the city, forcing them away from roads without giving them an alternative place to go. Twenty-five advocacy organizations penned a joint-rebuttal Friday to Wheeler’s plan, saying the mayor was ignoring the more significant factors causing deaths, such as poor road design and deferred maintenance.
“Nowhere in any transportation study, advocacy campaign or community forum seeking to address our roadway safety problems has it been suggested that unhoused people and encampments should be swept or outright banned as a partial solution to this crisis,” the letter read.
Ashton Simpson, executive director of Oregon Walks, said he felt the mayor’s order was shaped, not by the transportation bureau’s findings, but by the Portland Business Alliance and by People for Portland, an advocacy campaign calling for more police and shelter. Both groups have recently released polls that show that Portlanders’ frustration with City Hall has reached a new threshold, and residents of the city would be supportive of a more aggressive approach to homeless.
“The intentions and genuineness of the mayor are not honest,” Simpson said. “It’s quite shameful they would use people’s death to further their own political interests.”
The mayor said the polling did not play a role in his announcement, but noted he was feeling a new wave of support for his proposals.
“I think there’s also been a systematic bias toward the long term development of affordable housing and for sometime I’ve been something of a lone voice saying we also need to act with urgency,” Wheeler said. “I feel that the tide has turned. I feel the public supports this direction.”
The mayor’s office said the order will impact campers on 30 high-crash roadways, which are owned by both the Oregon Department of Transportation and the city. The area encompasses about 8% of the city, according to the mayor. Portland has the money to beef up sweeps in the area after the urban camping program was given additional funding in the last budget cycle.
Wheeler said there will be no “right of return” for people who were camping in these areas, and they will be forced to leave if they return to previous campsites. He added that he supports the idea of fencing off dangerous areas on state land where people should not be camping. He expects people to see the impact of the order over the coming months.
The mayor acknowledged Friday that it is far from clear where these campers are supposed to go. The county has capacity to shelter roughly 1,400 to 1,500 people year round. There were about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County in 2019, the last time there was a finalized count of the area’s homeless population. The homeless population has likely grown since then.
“In the absence of adequate shelters, in the absence of other alternatives, some people will pick up and move somewhere,” Wheeler said. “Which isn’t really solving the larger problem but does solve the immediate problem.”
Under a 2018 federal court decision known as Martin v. Boise, Idaho, cities are barred from prohibiting camping unless there is available shelter space. Wheeler did not directly answer questions from reporter Friday about how his executive order meshed with the federal court’s ruling in that case. He said only that city leaders would do their “level best” to give people alternative places to shelter.
Wheeler pinned the blame for the lack of shelter beds partially on the state and said he’d made a pitch to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown earlier Friday for help adding 1,000 temporary shelter beds.
Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, responded that Brown was “focused on working with local partners” and had called for a $400 million investment in affordable housing in Thursday’s State of the State.
“Our office has communicated to the City that they should engage in the legislative process for additional budget asks,” Boyle wrote.
Commissioner Carmen Rubio released a cautious written statement Friday on the mayor’s proposal. It was not clear if she supports or opposes Wheeler’s plan:
“The traffic fatality data is clear and alarming, and it requires a response. Over the coming days, as we learn more about how this will work from the mayor’s office, I intend to make sure that our efforts to reduce traffic fatalities also treat people with dignity and respect,” she wrote. “These actions will naturally disrupt the lives of our houseless neighbors, and we cannot lose sight of those human impacts.”