People for Portland proposes ballot measure to eliminate outdoor camping

By Rebecca Ellis (OPB)
March 26, 2022 1:11 a.m.

The measure would allow any Metro resident to sue the government if they believe the People for Portland measure is not being enforced.

Homeless encampment in North Portland near N Rosa Parks Way exit on I-5, Oct. 11, 2021.

Homeless encampment in North Portland near N Rosa Parks Way exit on I-5, Oct. 11, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Advocacy group People for Portland has proposed a November ballot measure that would redirect the bulk of the money from Metro’s 2020 Homeless Services Measure toward emergency shelter and force people living on the streets to move into the shelter space.

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If passed as currently drafted, the measure would constitute a sharp departure from the region’s current strategy for addressing homelessness, prioritizing shelter at the expense of securing permanent housing for people.

The measure would require at least three-quarters of the tax money from Metro’s supportive housing service measure to be funneled toward emergency shelters. That ratio would remain until each county has enough beds to shelter every person experiencing homelessness in the region and each municipality is “enforcing its own anti-camping ordinances.”

It’s not immediately clear how this measure would work under Martin v. Boise, a landmark case that found cities could not enforce their anti-camping rules if they did not have a sufficient amount of shelter beds for everyone experiencing homelessness.

The Metro Homeless Service measure placed a 1% tax on high-income earners in Washington, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties. It is expected to generate about $250 million annually for supportive housing services — services that help people at risk of homelessness remain in their housing. That includes case management, rent assistance and shelter.

People have speculated fiercely in recent months as to the end goals of People For Portland, a mostly anonymously funded campaign. Top political consultants Kevin Looper and Dan Lavey unveiled the effort in August of 2021, saying they wanted to “make politicians listen harder” to voters through public polling and a mass-email campaign.

After political consultant Kevin Looper helped guide Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to victory last year, she asked him to keep watch on the issues that could wind up being referred to voters after legislators act.

Political consultant Kevin Looper has helped lead People for Portland, an effort that now wants to force people living outdoors in the metro area to find shelter.

Jeff Mapes / OPB

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Many were skeptical and insisted the group had more muscular goals. That camp of skeptics appeared to be proven right Friday when People for Portland filed the ballot initiative proposal, called “Everyone Deserves Safe Shelter.” In addition to redirecting money from the Metro homeless service measure, the proposal would require Metro to conduct a yearly audit of how money from its measure is being used. The People for Portland effort would also forbid anyone with conflicts of interest from serving on an oversight committee for the funds.

Last, it would allow any Metro resident to sue the government if they believe the People for Portland measure is not being enforced. Plaintiffs could win back their attorney fees.

The measure strikes at the heart of an ongoing debate in the city over whether to prioritize the creation of shelter or permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. People for Portland has long called for officials to expand shelter options and argued the status quo of tents lining streets is inhumane. Housing advocates, providers and elected officials have been wary of pouring too much money toward shelters, arguing that prioritizing housing is the one true way to end homelessness. They say People For Portland’s plan will not make a dent in the region’s worsening homeless crisis and is likely to only solve one problem for housed Portlanders: signs of abject poverty lining many city blocks.

“Shelters don’t end homelessness,” said Angela Martin, one of the chief architects behind the 2020 Metro Homeless Service measure. “It’s an expensive holding pattern.”

Martin worked alongside People for Portland’s Kevin Looper to pass the Metro Homeless Service Measure in 2020. Looper has since become one of the measure’s loudest critics, arguing officials and homeless providers have moved too slowly to get the money into the hands of people who desperately need it.

In a statement, the group framed its ballot measure as an attempt to address the “inhumanity, misery and death among the thousands of people living unsheltered in the Portland area.”

According to a Metro spokesperson, money from the Metro measure has added 1,640 shelter beds, placed 456 people into permanent supportive housing, and provided 1,406 people with eviction prevention assistance.

Martin said many of these people would be at risk of eviction if the People for Portland measure passes, as dollars keeping people in housing would be siphoned away.

“The moment we have to divert 75% of the funds to shelter only, we’re going to have to start issuing evictions to people we already placed in permanent housing,” she said.

In announcing its ballot measure, People for Portland joins a series of advocacy groups that have cropped up in the last two years determined to decrease the footprint of homeless camps that proliferated during the pandemic. In Austin, Texas, a county GOP chair and a Democratic activist united to form an advocacy group called Save Austin Now. That group 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. In Sacramento, California, voters are considering a ballot measure proposal that would ban outdoor camping and allow residents to sue the city if they don’t clean up campsites.

People for Portland will need to collect 51,000 signatures to get the measure on the November ballot.

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