Think Out Loud

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler on his approach to homelessness

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
March 1, 2022 7:43 p.m. Updated: March 3, 2022 4:02 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, March 2

A man seen in profile as he looks into the distance.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

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It’s been almost a month since Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued an emergency order to ban camping near busy roadways. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness have been critical of the decision. Wheeler has also said he plans to create large outdoor sites in the city for sanctioned camping where campers could be relocated from busy roadways and other makeshift campsites. And, on Wednesday, he announced a plan to use his executive powers to create a new homeless service hub within the city government, streamlining the work of various departments that interact with people living outside. We talk with Wheeler about his plans to address homelessness.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Dave Miller: You showed in the press conference about an hour ago a complicated org chart, because we’re talking about reorganizing a bunch of different bureaus and offices. But can you simplify this for us? What exactly is changing?

Ted Wheeler: The city of Portland will stop tripping over itself in terms of responding to providing services to people on the streets. What I mean specifically by that is we currently have 29 bureaus, they report to different commissioners, they are siloed they’re sometimes working on similar strategies in different ways, sometimes even competing with each other and getting in each other’s way. So, what this does is this aligns all of our responses at the city level to homelessness under one incident commander who reports to the director of emergency services. And this will allow us to connect with our county partners and approximately 19 other agencies to be able to provide services in a quick, streamlined and effective way. It allows us to share information and data and it allows us to steer people towards, for example, shelter space on a real time basis, as well as other services.

Miller: What’s an example of a situation now where people working in different bureaus would actually be, in effect, competing against each other, even if they’re both in the end trying to help people experiencing homelessness?

Wheeler: I’ll give you a couple of different examples. There was a bit of press coverage several weeks ago about a homeless encampment that was in the immediate vicinity of one of our water bureau pumping stations. And so the water bureau was trying to resolve that conflict there because it made it difficult for people to service the pump station, but it was not necessarily coordinated with the impact reduction team or some of the other work that was going on with our social service providers at the county. We’ve had similar situations in our parks where the parks bureau is trying to resolve the conflict or park rangers are trying to resolve the conflict, but again, not necessarily in coordination with other service providers. And of course, our transportation bureau is the largest landowner in the city of Portland. They are responsible for a number of public right of ways and again, whether it’s trying to connect people to services, whether it is moving problematic campsites where people are either living in squalid conditions or they’re living in a dangerous location in immediate proximity to traffic, again, the bureau is sort of on their own to address those issues as opposed to working in a coordinated effort. As a result of that, Dave, it’s not only convoluted, it’s confusing, it’s not quick and it costs an awful lot of money that could be better spent under a more streamlined system.

Miller: Homelessness is maybe the most obvious case of of a glaring problem facing the city that reaches its tentacles into a lot of different aspects of city governance and city offices and city bureaus. But couldn’t, on some level, the argument you’re making about responding to homelessness, couldn’t it be made about other issues affecting the city? I mean, on some level, aren’t you just talking about our bizarre commission form of government?

Wheeler: At its core, yes. This this emergency declaration, as you’ve rightly pointed out, is intended to overcome our commission form of government, where you have siloed bureaus reporting to different commissioners who may have different strategies, different priorities, different ideas in mind about what the best approach is. So, this gives us the opportunity to coordinate it. And as you can imagine, I worked with my commissioners over several weeks to draft ... this emergency declaration, and it’s been shaped as a result of that by the input of other commissioners. We do, in fact‚ already coordinate services in this manner during emergency situations. We did it during the early year and a half of COVID. We did it during the wildfires a little over a year ago. We’ve done it during flooding situations on a shorter term duration. And if there’s ever an earthquake in the city, this is exactly how we will organize — under an incident command structure that coordinates our services. And unsaid in this is the frustration that our partners at Multnomah County feel when they are trying to coordinate their efforts with us, either through the Joint Office [of Homeless Services], or through their health department. They’re not just working with one point of contact in city government; they’re potentially working with five different commissioners and 29 different bureaus, and it is hellishly frustrating for them. This gives them one point of contact, one source of information sharing. One source where people can go to and identify what services are available to connect people to on a real time basis.

Miller: OPB’s story about this organizational change on Reddit has led to a number of comments and one of them caught my attention. Somebody wrote this: “I really want to be snarky and: like, of course you need an office to oversee the other offices overseeing the programs discussing and addressing the homeless. But if it actually helps streamline communication and allows the offices to better interact and coordinate their efforts, that would be pretty dope. I don’t have high hopes though.” So, that snarky beginning does get to a real question though: how are you going to make sure that an effort at streamlining bureaucracy doesn’t really just, in the end, create more?

Wheeler: Because the people who are running it on a day-to-day basis have hands-on experience leading this kind of an organizational effort. Mike Myers, who is the director of the whole program, served not only as our director of emergency management for the city of Portland, he also served as the fire chief and has served in that capacity for other cities over many decades. The incident commander who will be responsible on a day-to-day basis as a 23-year service record with the Portland Fire Bureau and they’ve already been engaged and plugged into the service provider network. They’ve worked with all of our commissioners and have the support and trust of our city commissioners and they’ve worked with Multnomah County and they have their trust as well. So, leadership matters, in this case, to be able to bring together all these disparate pieces. Some of the tough work is still ahead. For example, we still have fragmented information systems, even something as basic, Dave, as if somebody wants to be steered towards a shelter, we don’t have a way in real time of reserving a spot, directing somebody towards that spot and providing transportation for that individual and their belongings to that shelter space. And when I talk to people and they say, “You don’t do that already?” they find it kind of incredible on one hand, but grateful that we’re moving towards a more rationalized system. This is definitely the cost-effective and smart and thoughtful way to go. Instead of having homeless individuals try to navigate all these different service providers and shelter options and different services they might need, we’re going to do it for them. We will be the point of contact. We will coordinate and we’ll work with our outreach teams to connect people to shelter and other services.

Miller: I want to turn to that earlier emergency order that you put forward banning camping near busy roads. How big an increase in sweeps of camps near highways and other big streets has the city undertaken since that emergency order?

Wheeler: So, there have been at least 12 large-scale camps removed from the most problematic areas. And by “problematic,” I mean they were identified as areas in high-traffic corridors where people are likely to be hit by automobiles. And that, of course, was backed by the Vision Zero work from the city of Portland where they released a survey indicating that 70% of the people killed in traffic fatalities on our streets were in fact houseless individuals. And so we are starting with those areas that have the highest risk to the individuals living there first.

Miller: You said at the time that banning camping near busy roads was just the first step in a series of executive actions. Today’s announcement is obviously another. What’s next?

Wheeler: Well, as I mentioned during my press conference this morning, it depends. We’re going to keep pushing forward to make sure that we’re addressing the homeless crisis from every angle with the urgency that it deserves and we’re going to change systems as we need systems to be changed. Obviously, the first directive around removing people who were in dangerous encampments along busy roads that came from the Vision Zero work. The second emergency directive last week helps to streamline Commissioner Ryan and the city council’s efforts around the Safe Rest Villages and I support that program, and I really applaud Commissioner Ryan for his leadership on that, and today’s effort helps us create the incident command structure to coordinate our services at the city level so that we can be better partners to Multnomah County and the health department and the other service providers in the community.

Miller: I want to turn to the memo written by one of your aides — former Portland Mayor Sam Adams —outlining, among other things, an idea to create three 1,000-person homeless shelters to be staffed by Organ National Guards people. It was called a “nonstarter” by some of your fellow members of the city council. What was your own personal, immediate reaction when you saw that idea?

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Wheeler: So, I asked Sam and his team, his strategic initiatives team, to hold nothing back and look at every possible option for addressing the homeless crisis with the urgency and at the scale required to be able to address this problem in our community. And I’ve sent them to other cities to look at what other cities are doing. I’ve asked them to come up with whiteboard ideas on what we could be doing differently in order to have a better impact here. That was one of many ideas. As Sam said in his memo, it was not intended to be a plan; it was intended to start a discussion. And let’s give Sam some credit. It started the discussion and it’s an important one. And I will also say...

Miller: Wait, but you haven’t answered. I mean, all that’s the background. My question was when you saw that particular idea, what did you think of it? Not is it a good idea to start a conversation, but what do you think of that idea as an actual proposal?

Wheeler: I support it. I support it. And I will tell you, I don’t know if 1,000 is the right number. I think Sam may have pulled 1,000 out of the air, but why not start looking at what we’re doing on a smaller scale, like the Kenton Women’s Village or the Safe Rest Villages, why don’t we provide another larger-scale option that acknowledges the reality that there are thousands upon thousands of homeless people living in squalid conditions and in dangerous conditions on our street? Over 100 people died last year on our streets, and I do not think it is humane in any way, shape or form to say, ‘Yeah, it’s okay if somebody camps in the middle of an intersection,’ or ‘Yeah, it’s okay if somebody lives in their own filth on the streets.’ That is not a humane approach to addressing this crisis.

Miller: I was just wondering if that’s a straw man. Who was saying it’s humane and good for people to be living this way as opposed to, ‘We should find other ways other places for them to live.’

Wheeler: This is part of the discussion I want to have. If people are saying the status quo is acceptable, then they are saying that the loss of 120 lives per year is an acceptable loss of life. And if they are saying that they do not want us to move people out of either squalid conditions where they’re impacted by public health or environmental issues, if they do not want to move people out of the medians and freeways because it’s somehow impeding on people’s right to be in the middle of a freeway, I don’t think that’s a compassionate response. And I also don’t think the status quo is addressing this problem at the scale that it needs to be addressed. And I want to be clear what Sam was proposing. Immediately, people shut it down. And they used offensive comparators like “concentration camp” or “internment camp,” which is offensive to a lot of people in this community who are impacted by internment camps or concentration camps, but we’ll put that aside for a moment. What it was was an attempt to move people into safer locations with access to toilets, access to showers, access to water, access to food, potential navigation to housing or mental health or substance abuse treatment and why people would immediately shut that down is beyond me. We should at least have the discussion about what pieces of that are workable, what parts of this solution makes sense. But to immediately equate it with Nazi Germany and say, ‘I’m going to faint if you talk about this anymore,’ I do not think that is good leadership. I do not think that is humane.

Miller: So let’s let’s have that conversation. What are the pieces of that plan that you, right now, are ready to say you will push for? We can even start with size — if you said that 1000 was [a number] Sam Adams took out of the air, what size do you think is appropriate? That’s actually a really huge question in terms of finding social service providers who will provide these, and having people feel comfortable or safe at a location. What size of a larger place, as you’re saying, that’s commensurate with the scale of the problem, are you pushing for currently?

Wheeler: Dave, you’re asking exactly the right question. So, I went to San Antonio and I looked at their model that connects services to people who are on the streets. There are things we liked about it, things we didn’t like about it. But from San Antonio’s perspective, their model’s very successful. They have 1200 people in that particular facility. We’ve also had conversations here locally with some nonprofit service providers like the Bybee Lake folks. They started with 120 people. They believe they are being very successful with their population, with their model. They hope to expand to several hundred individuals now that the COVID restrictions are starting to go by the wayside, and I don’t think we should be afraid to look at sanctioned, alternative outside camps that provide people a cleaner, safer, more humane environment, potentially with safety, potentially with access to transportation, potentially navigation services to mental health or substance abuse treatment. I, for the life of me, just don’t understand why people are going to say, ‘No, I don’t want to have the conversation about that,’ when it’s not their lives at stake. We’re talking about the people who are living — I’m looking out my window right now — people living in what I would consider unsafe, unsanitary conditions.

Miller: Is it your ultimate goal that these new sites will be set up — sanctioned campsites or shelters of some kind — and that once those are up and running and in large enough numbers, officials will then tell people who you can see out your window right now, or who are in other parts of the downtown core, say, ‘You can no longer be here, you have to go to these other places?’ Is that the ultimate plan?

Wheeler: That is not what we do right now. The way it works right now is if somebody is living in a dangerous place, or they’re in an area where there is a public health risk, or environmental damage or they’re living in squalid conditions — and I think we’ve all seen those kinds of conditions — we post it, we, as much as possible, have social service workers go out and try to connect people to services, and then we go through a very specific process to remediate the camp, including the collection of people’s belongings.

Miller: What you’re describing is what happens right now, but my question is, is the ultimate plan here, let’s say there are new outdoor sanctioned sites that are set up and, a year from now, at that point, then, would you say, ‘Go away from here and go to this place?’

Wheeler: I think it is entirely appropriate for a community to identify safe, clean alternatives and tell people they have a choice: they can go to the safe, clean alternative or they’re in violation of our community standards and practices. I do not faint at that prospect. I think that is a step up for a lot of people who are currently dying on our streets.

Miller: Does what you just described, if it’s an outdoor campsite, would that pass legal muster with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ Boise decision, which I thought said there has to be an indoor space if you’re going to tell people they can’t camp somewhere?

Wheeler: So, the Boise decision is more specific than that, and it pertains to a municipal government criminalizing homelessness, and they define that as citing them for being homeless. We don’t do that.

Miller: So, you’re saying as far as you can tell, you would have the legal authority to tell people, ‘You cannot camp here, you cannot sleep here. You can either leave and if you want to, you can go to this new place we’ve set up?’

Wheeler: Our lawyers say, “yes,” as long as you’re providing them an equally attractive or better alternative, and in each case, it would be a better alternative. But I want to tell you how this works operationally. Operationally, when a campsite is posted, I am told that approximately 98% of the people who are in a posted site or impact reduction program, they go out, they talk to people, they post the site, 99% of the people move voluntarily. They go somewhere else.

Miller: Just before we say goodbye, I mean, one of the questions that you’ve gotten many times — it happened in the press conference today — and and for weeks now is, ‘Hey, you’ve been in charge for a long time and things haven’t gotten better.’ You’ve acknowledged they haven’t gotten better. I’m curious if you can say, today, at what point in the future, if things still have not gotten better, will you say, ‘That’s it. What I’m doing is not working?’ If, a year from now, these efforts have not borne numerical fruit, then what?

Wheeler: I said in the press conference and I’ll it say here: I would have to be stupid to sit here and tell you that the homeless crisis has improved over the last five years. Objectively, people can look out their window, as I just did, and see that the situation has gotten much worse. That’s despite significant new innovations, new programs, a huge increase in the amount of funding, that’s despite two efforts on the part of our community to support housing bonds, despite the efforts at the regional level to support a homelessness program. It has gotten objectively worse, and I know people are hopping mad at me. Believe me, I hear it everywhere I go, how pissed off people are at me. But I don’t think I’m going to be judged in the moment. I think, in the years ahead, people will say, ‘Ted Wheeler was the mayor of this city during what were the most challenging years in this city’s history.’ Whether it was the homeless crisis, whether it was gun violence, whether it was COVID, whether it was our climate crisis, whether it was fill in the blank, I am doing my darndest to lead this city through a very challenging time, and I’m taking the initiative through these executive directives and other efforts. I’m willing to work with whoever will work with me to address these challenges and I’m going to keep fighting until the bitter end. And if the bitter end is six months from now, it’s six months from now. If the bitter end is at the end of my term, three years from now, that’s great too. But I am not going to stop fighting for a community I believe in, a community, I love, a community I was born in and, God help me, a community, I’ll die in.

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