The Portland City Council on Thursday moved forward with a $27 million package to pay for a plan that would ban street camping and force people into city-run encampments.
The money is intended to jump-start an effort to build at least six campsites while moving toward a camping ban over the next 18 months. The deeply controversial plan was crafted by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan, and approved by the city council on Nov. 3. Ryan oversees Portland’s housing bureau.
Opponents see the plan as a thinly veiled way of criminalizing homelessness, while supporters see it as the best way to connect people experiencing homelessness with the social services they need.
“Building concentration camps for unhoused people is a counter-productive waste of taxpayer money,” said Fran Michele during public testimony. “It is not an evidence-based approach to solving the housing crisis.”
Thursday’s budget proposal includes withholding $7 million from a regional agency charged with addressing homelessness — unless Multnomah County leaders commit to spending $15 million on eviction prevention, rental assistance and legal defense funds. County leaders have indicated that they support spending this amount.
The agency, Joint Office of Homeless Services, is overseen and funded by the city and county governments. It addresses homelessness through housing, shelter, health care, employment assistance and case management services.
While $7 million is a fraction of the agency’s $255.5 million budget, the move is a way of strong-arming county leaders into helping fund Wheeler and Ryan’s plan to force people into city-sanctioned campsites. Feedback from county commissioners, particularly Chair Deborah Kafoury, so far has ranged from lukewarm to critical.
Some key details of the plan remain unknown, including where the city would build mass campsites that would each shelter up to 250 people.
“The success of this work hinges on federal, regional, state and local partners coming to the table with their ideas, services and resources,” Wheeler said. “It’s going to take commitment from all of us to do the hard work that lies ahead.”
In addition to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, Wheeler and Ryan’s plan hinges on buy-in from several local agencies, including the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, the Metro regional government and state leaders, among other agencies and stakeholders. They have yet to make any firm commitments of support.
Wheeler met with Governor-elect Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Chair-elect Jessica Vega Pederson to discuss the spending package Wednesday.
“Both reiterated their support for [this package] and committed to working productively with my office and our entire City Council moving forward on these and other priorities,” Wheeler said during Thursday’s meeting. “I also look forward to continuing to develop relationships with new representatives within the Oregon state Legislature and meeting with Metro colleagues to further our partnership.”
The City Council also approved an amendment to move $15 million that was intended to help pay off some of the city’s $4 billion backlog in capital maintenance projects. Hardesty was the lone “no” vote against the amendment, saying the move would cause the Portland Bureau of Transportation to “suffer tremendously.”
Thursday’s budgetary changes are part of the city’s regular fall budgetary adjustments, also called the “fall bump.” It’s one of three opportunities for city leaders to revisit the fiscal year budget. The changes will get a final council vote next week.
The larger parts of Thursday’s spending package include $17 million to build and operate three camps for a year and $5.5 million toward increased staffing in various city departments and programs. The latter includes establishing a 50-person Navigation Team that can connect people with homeless services, as well as funding two private security guards “due to staff shortages at the Portland Police Bureau Central Precinct.”
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty was the only council member to vote no on the spending package. She said she was particularly alarmed about the last-minute addition of hiring private security.
“I am concerned that there is no transparency into what’s being built, and very concerned there is no public community oversight,” Hardesty said. “I am very concerned that the people who are the most vulnerable in our community will be the ones most harmed by this policy.”
Almost 60 people testified at Thursday’s meeting, mostly criticizing Wheeler and Ryan’s proposal. Some compared plans for large government-run camps to internment camps and said people experiencing homelessness could be further traumatized by being forced into them.
“I believe that this budget allocation needs to go primarily to the root of the issue, and I’m not hearing that as being done,” said David Hopper during the public comment period, adding that he’d prefer the funds go toward converting vacant hotels into housing, providing long-term rental assistance, and providing subsidies to landlords who are renting to tenants facing homelessness.
At one point during the public comment period, a testifier exceeded their allotted two-minute speaking time, causing Wheeler to temporarily halt public testimony. When the council returned from recess about 20 minutes later, he reprimanded the room of people signed up to testify.
“I want to reiterate when you all came in here you agreed to the rules of conduct,” Wheeler said. “The purpose of the rules is so everybody has an opportunity to speak in this chamber.”
Wheeler also asked testifiers to limit their comments to “the policy decisions before the council” and not “personal attacks.”
When another testifier exceeded their speaking time, the commissioners excused themselves and reconvened remotely.
Correction: Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan added an amendment to the budget changes resolution calling for the city to withhold $7 million unless the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners committed to spending $15 million on eviction prevention and rental assistance services. A previous version of this story miscalculated the latter number.