Not long ago, proposing to force the homeless population in one of America’s most liberal cities into three massive shelters would have seemed a political, potentially career-ending non-starter.
But, in late January, mayoral aide Sam Adams signaled times had changed. In a now infamous eight-page memo sent to multiple government offices, Adams, a former mayor himself, not only posed the idea but suggested such an action could be politically palatable.
Adams included screenshots of three responses from polls paid for by a group called People for Portland. Each showed the public overwhelmingly fed up with regional leadership’s approach to homelessness and trash piling up near campsites.
Adams’ proposal for shelters staffed by the Oregon National Guard was bashed by homeless advocates, who drew instant comparisons to internment camps. Adams later said he heard feedback that 1,000-people sites may be too large, but appeared overall unfazed by the backlash, buckling down in a series of tweets and thanking his boss, Mayor Ted Wheeler, for his support.
The People for Portland campaign soon distanced itself from the plan, telling the public not to blame them for the “mayor’s incompetence or bad ideas.” Yet, to some donors, this proposal along with Adams’ commitment to it in the face of roaring condemnation was hardly political ineptitude.
It was People for Portland working as intended.
“We’re trying to give the electeds cover to make tough decisions — because they are tough decisions — and not get overwhelmed by the vocal minority,” said Downtown Development Group co-president Greg Goodman, one of Portland’s largest private landowners and a contributor to the campaign.
It’s been half a year since two top political consultants unveiled People for Portland, a mostly anonymously funded campaign to spur local officials to act on some of the most pressing problems they say face the city: trash, homelessness and public safety. The campaign has flooded the airwaves with TV ads, orchestrated a mass-email campaign to elected leaders and paid for polls that paint a clear picture of a gloomy electorate.
Six months and at least a million dollars later, both critics and those who dug into their pockets to finance the effort are mulling the same question: Has it made a difference?
Interviews with over a dozen public officials, donors, activists and political consultants reveal two schools of thought. Some brush the campaign aside as an agent of chaos, sucking up the air in government offices and stoking the ire of already frustrated voters without accomplishing much in the way of fresh policy.
But another camp of both opponents and supporters see the group dominating civic conversation in Portland, particularly when it comes to the right way to address the city’s homeless crisis. They say it’s provided certain elected officials the political support they need to move aggressively to build big shelters and clear the streets of tents, a push critics say will ultimately fail to make a dent in the crisis and one supporters see just now starting to bear fruit.
While Goodman had quibbles with the mayor’s plan for mammoth shelters — 1,000-person camps was too large and the use of National Guard questionable — he applauded Wheeler for the concept.
“I think that might have given Ted the cover to do what he did,” he said, referring to the campaign’s polling. “If that gives him the cover, then I think it’s very effective.”
The People for Portland origin story
People for Portland has proven divisive since day one.
The campaign burst into public view in late August. Dan Lavey, a longtime Republican consultant, and Kevin Looper, a leading strategist for Democrats, announced they had united to create a platform to “make politicians listen harder” to voters.
Through public polling and a mass-email campaign, the consultants said they wanted to show elected leaders the public demanded three things: the garbage cleaned up, the public safety system strengthened, and people experiencing homelessness moved from the streets into shelter.
The campaign caused a collective shudder among many Portland progressives, who speculated the campaign was a vehicle for more than public venting — perhaps a set-up to pave the path for gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson, whose campaign both consultants later joined, or a plan to redirect tax money from Metro’s $250 million homeless services measure, which Looper himself helped pass in 2020. A top director for Looper’s political consulting firm who worked on the measure promptly left the company, blindsided by the effort. Polling company FM3 Research, which conducted the campaign’s first poll, soon said they’d no longer be able to work with the campaign as its strategies conflicted with their other clients.
Questions quickly arose over who was backing the campaign. The organizers chose to structure People for Portland as a 501 (c)(4), meaning donors to the campaign aren’t made public. Consultants and contributors have bristled against the association with dark money, arguing there was nothing nefarious about the decision to file as a social welfare organization, the same designation used by Basic Rights Oregon and the political arm of Planned Parenthood.
Yet the dark money branding has lingered with few early backers choosing to put their name behind the effort. Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle told the Oregonian/OregonLive he had donated when the campaign was announced, and Harsch Investment Properties president Jordan Schnitzer said he supported the effort. No other donors followed. OPB reached out to nine people rumored to have backed the campaign from the onset. Three said they were not donors. Three didn’t respond to a call and two emails. The head of a private equity firm agreed to speak, but then went silent.
Goodman responded immediately. He said he was part of a small group of people who felt that a “vocal minority,” dominated by more radical progressives, was driving politics in the city. Lifelong liberal friends of his, he said, were not feeling represented by Portland’s left. Through polling and letter-writing campaigns, campaign backers wanted to prove there was significant support for more centrist politics in Portland. Goodman said the group was not driven solely by business interests, though he declined to say who else was involved.
With only the names of Portland’s most prominent businessmen attached to the effort, homeless advocates quickly portrayed People for Portland as the latest in a long string of attempts by the city’s business establishment to push the houseless population from the city’s core, in line with the Portland Business Alliance-backed push in 2013 to get Salem’s help barring people from sitting or lying on city sidewalks.
Donors say activists are directing their ire at the wrong targets. It’s the class of elected leaders, they say, who deserve the criticism for responding with bureaucratic sluggishness and befuddlement to a situation on the streets that becomes more inhumane by the day. Portland saw a record number of people die while living on the streets in 2020 and an all time high number of houseless people killed by cars in 2021. And yet, when the federal government gave the county emergency housing vouchers last May to prevent people from losing their houses, the public housing authority struggled for months to get them in the hands of renters teetering on homelessness, as Willamette Week reported.
“It would be different if we were lobbying for tax breaks for the wealthy, and it would be different if we were lobbying to sweep the streets and get rid of these ‘horrible homeless people.’ That’s not what we’re about,” said developer David Gold, a contributor to People for Portland. “We’re about trying to get the city to humanely heal the problems on our streets and the plight of these people who somehow … we have determined that it’s better to have people live in our gutters, literally, than it is to have them live in available housing.”
Gold said he’d donated about $15,000 to the campaign. The consultants have declined to say how much they’ve raised in total, though city lobbying reports show them spending over $1 million.
Goodman would not say how much he’s contributed to the effort, but considers the unspecified sum well-spent.
“I think it’s been tremendously successful. It’s taken on a life of its own, and I hope it keeps going,” he said. “The purpose is to create a grassroots army.”
At this point, the army largely shows up in town halls and form emails. Over 6,000 people attended the group’s town hall on homelessness Thursday night, according to the event moderator. Inboxes of elected officials have been flooded with thousands of emails from supporters. With one click on People for Portland’s website, frustrated Portlanders can fire off a pre-written email that gets blasted to elected officials in Portland, Multnomah County and Metro, the region’s land-use government, as well as state legislators who represent Portland districts.
From the time the campaign launched in August 2021 through Jan. 27, People for Portland supporters sent as many as 8,000 emails to city officials, according to records requested from council offices by OPB. The main thing differentiating each message is the name and address at the bottom of the email. According to an OPB analysis of those addresses, residents of the central city are firing off the most emails per capita. Residents in Portland’s eastern neighborhoods — Parkrose, Gateway, Lents, Montavilla — send the least. There was no statistically significant correlation between the neighborhood’s median income and the number of letters sent.
The concerns voiced by the campaign’s so-called grass-roots army run the gamut. A 77-year-old longtime Portland resident told OPB she wants to change the commission form of government. A Lewis & Clark administrator is alarmed at the rising catalytic convertor theft in her Southwest Portland neighborhood. A veterinarian who lives on Marine Drive wants someone to do something about all the cars abandoned on the levees that stop the Columbia River from flooding the city.
But nearly every conversation winds toward the same subject: the growing number of people living on the street in clear crisis and the politicians they no longer trust to help.
“Just look around — Portland is a disaster right now,” said Sean Farrell, a 38-year-old social services worker who has sent three of People for Portland’s form emails. “The city is doing nothing. The city does nothing like nobody’s business.”
Reshaping the homeless discussion
When it comes to addressing outdoor camping, Portland leaders tend to assign themselves to one of two philosophical groups.
Homeless advocates and providers, alongside many elected officials, have long advocated for the ‘Housing First’ model — an approach that prioritizes providing permanent housing to people as the most effective way to end homelessness. Until there is available housing to move people into, advocates of this model often argue, it is inhumane to force people to move from their camps on public land. Services must meet people where they are. Portlanders have passed three ballot measures in recent years aligned with this housing first direction: a $258 million Portland Housing bond for affordable housing; Metro’s $653 million housing bond; and a tax to generate $250 million-per-year to provide supportive services that help people remain in housing.
Critics of this approach say it takes far too long and believe leaders need to prioritize building shelter alongside housing. The status quo of allowing streets to stay lined with tents until there is enough housing, they say, is untenable.
People for Portland is firmly in the latter camp. Recently, the mayor’s office has been planting bigger and brighter flags showing Wheeler is too.
In a traditionally slow-moving mayor’s office, there’s been a jolt of activity in the last month around outdoor camping. A few days after Adams wrote out his proposal for three, 1,000-person shelters, Wheeler unveiled a plan to ban homeless camps along dangerous roadways. A week after that, Wheeler pushed Gov. Kate Brown to fund temporary shelters across the state.
Adams, the Wheeler aide and former mayor, said recent public polling — separate surveys paid for by both People for Portland and the Portland Business Alliance — has shocked elected officials from their echo chambers and showed the public is shifting toward where Wheeler’s staff says the mayor has always stood: a belief that unsanctioned camping is dangerous and temporary shelter presents a solution.
“From what I read, that change in emphasis — that deeper and deeper level of frustration and anger — is also happening in cities up and down the West Coast,” Adams said.
Last year, one Seattle suburb made it a crime to sleep on public land if there was available shelter and another banned public camping outright. San Francisco’s liberal mayor declared a state of emergency this winter on the “nasty streets” of the city’s Tenderloin, where overdose deaths have exploded and outdoor camping is common. Los Angeles banned sleeping, sitting, and lying down at 54 places in the city.
But it’s Austin, Texas, that some city officials are watching most closely.
The liberal enclave shares more in common with Portland than a slogan and a branch of Voodoo Doughnut. As homeless camps proliferated across the city, a county GOP chair and a Democratic activist united to form an advocacy group called Save Austin Now. With familiar messaging of a failing city, they circumvented a city council they viewed as out of touch and got a measure on the ballot last May to reinstate a ban on outdoor camping and impose fines on those who did not go to shelter. Despite vehement opposition by the city’s homeless advocates, politicians and ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s, the voters in the progressive oasis approved it handily.
A similar story is playing out in Sacramento where voters are considering a ballot measure proposal that would ban outdoor camping and allow residents to sue the city to force them to clean up campsites.
Adams believes Portland could be next.
“The political class in Portland and Oregon and well-intentioned advocates are so disconnected from the anger and frustration and concern over the outdoor camp-less housing situation that we are headed for an Austin moment, what appears to be a Sacramento moment where ballot measures are put on the ballot that are blunt and can be counter-productive, but get passed because we’re not paying attention,” said Adams. “We’re on the road to losing it to somebody’s initiative petition ballot measure unless we all wake up and pursue the win-win: better places for homeless folks to camp.”
Though People for Portland distributed materials to donors early on showing they were interested in a measure to ban public camping, the campaign has not taken public steps toward such a measure. That fact has done little to dampen the speculation among elected officials that they may one day harness their long list of angry voters toward something bigger than a mass email campaign.
“They’re herd animals, and we’ve put fear into the herd,” Looper said of the cohort of local politicians they are targeting with their ads and emails. “They’re absolutely reacting.”
The organizers of People for Portland have rarely claimed victory over the past six months. The message directed at local leaders is consistent and consistently negative: do more, do it better.
But, in an interview, the consultants said that while progress has been slow, they credit the campaign with influencing several policies: the city council’s decision to increase the police budget in the fall; the unanimous vote to expand Portland Street Response (a non-police unit that responds to some 911 calls); and a shifting conversation about the correct way to address outdoor camping.
Some see this conversation shift extending beyond Portland City Hall. A member of the Here Together coalition, a group of nonprofits, businesses and elected leaders that campaigned for the Metro homeless services measure, said that a year and a half ago, discussions of sanctioned campsites would have been “shouted down” by some in the coalition as criminalizing homeless, implying there are places where camping should not be allowed. They say that’s no longer the case and believe People for Portland is the reason.
The consultants and supporters say public officials are just reacting to the facts they have presented: a sizable number of constituents appear to support expanding shelter options and require — rather than encourage — people living on the streets to move into them.
The campaign’s most recent poll found 58% of respondents from Multnomah County supported requiring people living on the streets to move into available shelters. Officials have received People for Portland’s recent form letter imploring city leaders to build more shelter and housing and “phase out camping in public areas” over a thousand times.
“Allowing people to live and sleep outside in public spaces is inhumane and dangerous for everyone,” the email reads. “Sadly, as long as we allow people to violate the ban on public camping, many will not choose to go to safe shelters.”
Some advocates have accused the campaign of manufacturing this sentiment, flooding the air waves with divisive TV ads that malign homeless service providers and the people they’re trying to help.
“They’re using people’s legitimate frustration and worry and sadness about what’s going on for folks who are unsheltered and tapping into that with what is a marketing campaign,” said Jenny Lee, deputy director at racial justice advocacy group Coalition of Communities of Color and one of more than 700 people to sign a letter protesting the campaign. “What we see with People for Portland is this strong push for something that we know is going to fail.”
Shelter providers themselves have been some of the most vocally opposed to the push for more shelter. Andy Miller, head of the nonprofit Human Solutions, says he sees the campaign drumming up “undirected populism” toward a solution that will not make a dent in the problems, bucking years of research showing the only true path out of this crisis is moving people into housing.
“We have not heard the voice of people on the streets, or in our shelters already, saying we would like to see the city build more shelter beds and force people to go sleep in them,” Miller said. “So if this is an attempt to respond to the humanity that’s on the streets, where are the voices that represent that humanity asking for this as a solution?”
But perhaps critics and supporters are all giving People for Portland too much credit. After all, much of the city looks exactly as it did when the campaign started.
For that reason, Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle says he has given up.
Boyle said he donated north of $25,000 to People for Portland with the understanding that the campaign would harness public pressure to improve the conditions of the city’s homeless population and get the trash picked up. He says he no longer sees “any light in this effort.”
“If the concept was to have action done by members of elected officials in the government, there’s been virtually no action,” Boyle said. “It’s raised the issue, but raising the issue is a small percentage of solving the issue.”
Pollster John Horvick with DHM Research said People for Portland looms large in the minds of participants in his focus groups. People tend to feel their concerns about the state of the city have been validated by the effort. But they’re puzzled about where it’s all going and what they are supposed to do. As is he.
“For all that they’re doing, it seems like their policy requests are really insignificant, and they’re not taking actions to really change what matters, which is who your representatives are making these decisions,” Horvick said. “They’re not running ballot measures. I just find it odd. I find it confusing. I don’t get that.”
What is next?
People For Portland consultants — Looper, in particular — have nothing nice to say about the region’s elected officials. Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who Looper says he sees “actually trying,” is an exception.
In an interview, Looper painted local elected leaders with a broad brush: He called them fool’s gold and “not advanced vertebrae.” He said the city is losing to “a bunch of elected officials who can’t beat their way out of a wet paper bag.”
“These people are toast,” he said. “We tried to tell them, they weren’t listening.”
But aside from battering local officials in campaign ads and interviews, the consultants say they have no plans to quicken their fall by endorsing other candidates in the city, county or Metro races this May. As a 501(c)(4), the advocacy campaign is not allowed to support candidates as their main activity, and Lavey and Looper don’t intend to change forms. They are adamant the campaign was not set up for an electoral strategy, despite the rampant speculation that the effort was a way to assist gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson, a longtime Democratic state lawmaker running as an unaffiliated candidate for whom they have consulted for since October. While both campaigns may sing from a hymnal hypercritical of Portland, the consultants say their work for the two efforts remains separate.
Instead, they say, People for Portland will focus on trash. Lavey said the group is considering a lawsuit against the city and state for failing to remove garbage on roadway corridors — that includes Interstate 405, I-5, Lombard Street and Powell Boulevard. They’re currently sorting through 350 potential plaintiffs.
“Past is prologue. If you look at what we’ve done, it’s a pretty good indicator of the things we’re gonna keep doing,” Lavey said. “We’re not going away.”