Portland City Council has voted to ban street camping and create mass campsites where people living on the streets can go for shelter and services. The plan has drawn passionate responses in support and opposition since it was proposed. Hundreds of people have testified before the city council itself, and advocates organized a special town hall where those critical of the plan voiced their fears and concerns. We’ll talk with Mayor Ted Wheeler about the plan he and Commissioner Dan Ryan crafted and what happens next.
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. We start today with the city of Portland’s ambitious and in some ways controversial new approach to homelessness. The city council approved five resolutions on Thursday. Together, they call for the creation of six large city approved camping sites, the prohibition of unsanctioned camping in the rest of the city, 20,000 new units of affordable housing, and to help pay for all of this, more financial support from county, metro state and federal governments. Mayor Ted Wheeler has spearheaded these proposals, along with Commissioner Dan Ryan. The mayor joins us now. Welcome back to the show.
Ted Wheeler: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Miller: Can you describe your vision for these large sanctioned camping sites?
Wheeler: The goal ultimately is to bring services closer to where people are who need those services. Through significant outreach to people who are currently located in 800 different camps spread out across 146 square miles, what we learned was people need access to hygiene, they need littler collection, they need food, and ultimately, they’d like to be navigated to various services depending upon their needs.
Miller: So how much of that is going to be available at these six sites?
Wheeler: Well, I am leaving no stone unturned to work with our federal partners to make sure that we have access to the supports we need there, with our local partners to make sure that mental health and substance abuse treatment is accessible. I’m working with our own city bureaus to make sure that we have safety, that we have food, that we have the kind of navigation services that people need to be connected with services. So really, this is a conversation that goes beyond the city, and it acknowledges that people are on the streets for a lot of different reasons. And if we’re going to connect them with services and address their needs, then it has to be more than just the city of Portland providing either right of way or safety services. We’ve got to connect with upstream service providers and resources as well.
Miller: Are there any 250 person sites or shelters in Portland right now?
Wheeler: No, not that I’m aware of. In fact no, I can say definitively there are not. And the reason that we’re looking at larger scale is we have to begin the process of acknowledging that when you have as many people who are homeless as we do in Portland, spread out as thinly as they are across the city, we don’t have any way to reasonably connect them to services. In fact, a recent Oregonian survey showed about 10% of people who are in self sanctioned camps have never been approached for any kind of service. And so we think that by creating these more humane areas that have access to hygiene and safety and litter collection, we at least have a fighting chance of connecting them to services, and we’re not doing that now. The status quo clearly isn’t working.
Miller: So if there isn’t a current exact model for this in Portland, where have you found the model? I know that you recently went to Los Angeles. I’m curious what exactly you saw there, and how close what you’re talking about bringing to Portland is what you saw in Los Angeles?
Wheeler: Yeah, I was actually very impressed. And Commissioner Rubio, in her comments to the city council on Thursday night, indicated she went down there with a great deal of skepticism. But when she saw what they were actually doing and heard about their services and had the opportunity to meet with people who were in those encampments, she came away quite impressed, as did I.
What we learned was you can have large scale camps, provided that they are well managed, that they’re well financed, that security and safety is accounted for everybody who is in the camp. And they can also build community support by making agreements with the surrounding neighborhoods around cleanliness, around livability issues, around security issues. And I came away very hopeful. We have good local service providers here too, and I don’t want to lose sight of that. But I am concerned they’re spread too thin with what we’re asking them to do. And so this really opened the conversation around looking at what other service providers are doing nationally, with the hope that we could replicate some of the best of what they’re doing here in Portland and show some results.
Miller: I haven’t seen any local service providers say “we would like to run any number of 250 person sanctioned campsites.” Have you gotten buy-in or sign-on from any of the area’s existing providers?
Wheeler: The answer is unequivocally yes, but I want to make a clarification. The 250 number is an ultimate number. We obviously would build incrementally to that level. But it really depends on making sure that we have the service providers who are doing what they need to do operationally, make sure that we have continued funding and support, and make sure that we can connect people with the services that are necessary for this to be successful. And I do not expect us to roll these out as 250 person encampments. We’ll start smaller and we’ll build our way up as we develop competence.
Miller: So which are the service providers who said we would like to serve people in camps that would be up to 250 people?
Wheeler: I appreciate your question, but I’m not prepared to discuss the specific providers. We’re in conversations right now.
Miller: But you’re saying, unequivocally, there’s more than one existing provider who said that we will do this?
Wheeler: Hand, on my heart, other hand on the Bible, absolutely.
Miller: When can we have the names of them?
Wheeler: Assuming we reach some sort of an agreement or come to an understanding and they feel that we are in a position where we can release their names as a potential sponsor of a program like this, we’d be happy to do it, obviously. I mean at some point we’ll have to.
Miller: It’s been a challenge, and a long process, for Dan Ryan’s sanctioned Safe Rest Villages to get up and running. So far, only a few of them have. And those are significantly smaller than what you’re talking about - less than a quarter of the potential final size of what you’re talking about. They’re about, at most, 60 people. What lessons have you taken from his siting experiences?
Wheeler: Great question. First of all, we are working collaboratively with neighborhood associations and neighborhood business associations. And at this point, as of this week, we’re not talking with them about specific locations. But we’ll be meeting later this week with all of the neighborhood business district associations, as well as the neighborhood associations, to talk about what our objectives are and hear from them what kind of commitments they’d like from us around maintaining security and livability in the surrounding areas. And we think that’s an important first step in terms of making this happen.
And the second part of this is really what the conversation has already successfully done, pairing it with the notion that we will also begin to address the problem in our public right of ways. We’ve heard from a number of disability advocates, neighborhood associations, employers in our community, large and small, that we need to start taking responsibility for the cleanliness and the safety of our public right of ways. And that’s been paired with this proposal, unlike the safe rest village proposals, which by the way, I also support. But this both creates some opportunity for the community to see some improvements in the public right of way, along with a humane approach to try to connect people with services. And I think that’s the fundamental difference, along with asking our neighborhoods and our business districts what they need from us in terms of commitments.
Miller: What did you most take away from the listening session that you took part in that was convened by Street Roots and a coalition of homeless advocacy groups? That was a number of hours including people who were not thrilled with this idea. What did you most take away?
Wheeler: I took a couple of things away from that. First of all, I thought it was a great listening session. We heard a diversity of opinions. But mostly what I heard from people was their concerns about safety, their personal safety, and I think sometimes the population at large overlooks the dangers involved to the houseless population on the streets as they navigate their lives. I was also struck by the number of years that people self-reported that they had been homeless. I heard five years from one person, I heard 10 years from somebody else, or maybe it was even 11 years from somebody else. And I realized we are way too slow at connecting people to the services they need to get off and stay off the streets. With all that this brings in terms of increased opportunities for addiction, increased opportunities for mental health issues, increased opportunities for abuse and outright danger on the streets, we have to act with more urgency than we are today.
Miller: I have to say one of things that’s confused me here is the language embedded in one of the proposals. When you first talked about this plan, for example, you said that you were going to be phasing “a city wide ban on self-sited, unsanctioned encampments.” But aren’t those encampments against existing city code?
Wheeler: Yes. But the difference is it’s not really enforced. And during the last three years, it hasn’t been enforced largely due to COVID and recommendations from the CDC. But even prior to that, it wasn’t uniformly enforced simply because there were no alternatives that we could provide. And it just didn’t sit well with a lot of us to say “you can’t camp here,” and have somebody say “okay, I get it,” because I’ve already banned it in high volume pedestrian corridors, safe routes to school, high crash corridors. But at some point as we continue, the roll out of the camping ban, people are going to ask us “if not here, then where? Where can I go where you won’t hassle me, where I can potentially have access to hygiene and food and connection to services, where can I go?” And right now, we don’t have anything that matches scale, the magnitude of the problem that we’re facing on our streets. And I believe these encampments, though larger in scale than what we currently do, they are intended to meet the scale of the problem as it currently exists on our streets.
Miller: And just to be clear, it’s not just people asking those questions, “where can I go?” It’s also courts as well, after the Martin v Boise decision. Part of this idea, if I understand correctly, is to build enough alternative shelters through these new sites that you can enforce a ban on unsanctioned camping without running afoul of that Ninth Circuit decision, right?
Wheeler: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s both a legal question, and from my perspective it’s also a moral question. One thing that really struck me about Thursday night’s public testimony was that the debate we’re all having is really about, what is compassion? Compassion for who and how do you define it? And for me, the question is, is the status quo compassionate? Is it okay to allow people to live in dangerous and squalid conditions in the kind of weather I see outside my window right now? I answer that question unequivocally no, that is not a compassionate response. A compassionate response is giving people a safe location with access to toilets, to water, making sure that we have litter collection and other basic services. And most importantly, can we encourage our state and our county and other partners to work with us to connect people with mental health and substance abuse and domestic violence survivorship, and as the resolution here intends, job training and access to employment? Can we do that instead? And so I agree with those who say “hey, it’s different to have more people in one location.” But it’s also different because we’re actually going to be addressing the problems that people on the streets are experiencing, and we’re going to be doing it with urgency.
And at the same time, we’re going to acknowledge that it’s not just the houseless population that deserves compassion. What about people with disabilities who can’t navigate our sidewalks? What about small business owners that are closing shop because their employees and their customers don’t feel safe? What about neighborhoods that are concerned about livability and litter and environmental damage and other considerations, or frankly, their kids being able to walk to school safely? As mayor. I don’t get to just advocate for one population. I have to balance the needs and the interests of people all across this city. And I believe these resolutions do a good job of doing that.
Miller: In that Ninth Circuit ruling, some of the judges wrote this: “As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent homeless people for sleeping outdoors on public property on the false premise that they had a choice in the matter.” I can’t get past that “no option of sleeping indoors” line. Is there any precedent saying that a big sanctioned tent site would qualify?
Wheeler: First of all, let me just give a blanket answer to that, which is that at every step of this process, we’ve been advised by city attorneys. They know Martin v Boise inside and out, and they believe that what we are doing comports with Martin v Boise. And again, keep in mind this is filling a gap in a large spectrum of services that we provide, including indoor shelter. And I’m working to make sure that, in working with our county partners, we bring more of our indoor shelter capacity online. It includes alternative campsites that include indoor shelters. It includes all the other programs we do around supporting people in their housing, transitional housing and other services. So this is filling one piece of that gap.
Second of all, I would add that what we did learn from our outreach, and what I think was also mentioned at the Street Roots event, was that not everybody is very eager to go to a traditional indoor shelter and there’s a lot of reasons for that. But this just creates one more alternative for people to get off and stay off the streets.
Miller: I should point out, and this rolls into what you’re saying, but the last point in time count that I saw showed about 3,000 unsheltered people in Multnomah County. Let’s say all of what you’re talking about happens and there are 1,500 new sanctioned camping spots, when this is all up and running, there’s still going to be a gulf between the current unsheltered numbers and the new sanctioned camping shelters.
But I want to move on to questions about enforcement. One of the provisions that got unanimous support this past Thursday was to create some kind of enforcement diversion program through the District Attorney’s Office. Obviously, that’s something that the city can’t do by itself, this is one of many things that would rely on new relationships or new protocols with other governments. How exactly would the diversion program work? And how would it not undercut the kind of enforcement that is at the heart of a lot of what you’re talking about?
Wheeler: First of all, the details have not yet been ironed out. These are five resolutions. Resolutions give us the authority to march forward on working with partners that we need to work with to identify how we’re going to actually implement the programs detail by detail. So that has yet to be worked out. But writ large, what it’s about is if somebody has on their record a low level offense, or as an alternative to being cited for trespassing under these resolutions, we would give people the opportunity to go into diversion. And I mean by that, go into drug treatment or mental health, or job training, or other types of opportunities in lieu of a fine. And so again, the goal here isn’t to be heavy handed around enforcement, although we will enforce it at the end of the day. Our goal is really to connect people to services.
And that’s the spirit with which we currently enforce the executive directives I passed around safe routes to school and high crash corridors and the like. And that’s what we want to continue to do here. We really just want to get people into more humane, safer, and less squalid conditions where they have access to basic dignity, hygiene for example.
Miller: The pledge to start construction on 20,000 units of affordable housing in the city by 2033 has a potential price tag of close to $10 billion. We don’t normally talk about B’s when we talk about city budgets, not on that scale. What does it mean to pass this resolution, given the enormity of potentially federal funding that just does not exist right now?
Wheeler: I’ll say if I win the lottery tonight, the first 500 million is going to go to this program. But beyond that, look, the gap in Portland alone is 25,000 units of affordable housing. And that is at the core of this problem. Yes, there are other needs, mental health, substance abuse, and other types of needs. But the core, the upstream reason for this problem, is that we have a critical lack of lower income workforce and very low income affordable housing.
And we can solve it. We can solve it through land banking. I envision us identifying with other governments up to 400 sites that could be used for affordable housing. We’re obviously asking the legislature, and we’ve already put this ask before them, to help us with tax credits, as well as expanding some of the opportunities around urban renewal areas to create affordable housing. And we in the City of Portland have to do our part too. I hear repeatedly from affordable housing developers about the roadblocks and the bureaucracy and the fees that we charge. And I know Commissioner Mapps and Commissioner Ryan have been working to try and figure out how we can light a fire under the permitting process here at the City of Portland. And over the course of 10 years, working collaboratively with our state partners and our federal partners who control a lot of the resources that come into the state around affordable housing, I think we can take a big bite out of that gap.
And we need the plan, and we need the will, and to start focusing on it and stop talking about the future. So that’s my objective as sort of the chief lobbyist, the chief fundraiser, to lead from the very bottom of the political food chain and get some action behind affordable housing in our community.
Miller: That’s state and federal partners, but you have big asks of the Metro regional government and the county. What exactly do you want from those two entities? And how do you plan to get it?
Wheeler: The Metro regional government controls the allocation of the homeless services measure that was just passed by the voters. They also control resources for the regional affordable housing measure. They allocate those dollars to county governments, like Multnomah County, for the purposes of addressing homelessness. I have asked, not this year, but in a future year, for us to be able to sit down with Metro and their partners and hammer out an allocation that adds resources to the greater Portland area, because this is where the concentration of the problem is.
And so I’m asking for more of those regional resources to go where the immediate need is over the course of several years, to get this program jump started at the local level. I’m asking the county to work with us to provide mental health and substance abuse service dollars. We’re working with our work system partners, a federal agent of workforce development dollars, to help us with the workforce piece of this. And of course I’m asking the state to work with us on the affordable housing piece. So there’s plenty of asks for everybody, and I realize I don’t control everything. But if people understand that there’s a housing component, a mental health component, a substance abuse component, a safety component, a livability component, we’ll have to do our part at the local level here in Portland. But we need everybody else to work with us to address what Oregonians have said is overwhelmingly their number one priority, address homelessness. And that’s what we’re gonna do.
Miller: Ted Wheeler is the mayor of Portland.
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