With a forecast of near-freezing temperatures and heavy rain on the horizon, the city of Portland’s homelessness first response team has been ordered to stop distributing tents to people sleeping outside.
The announcement comes from Portland’s newest city commissioner, Rene Gonzalez, who oversees Portland Street Response, the burgeoning first response team focused on people experiencing homelessness or mental health issues.
In a press release sent Tuesday evening, Gonzalez said he has ordered all bureaus he oversees to temporarily suspend the distribution of both tents and tarps to members of the public. This includes the Portland Fire Bureau, which houses Portland Street Response.
The ban is due to a number of recent tent fires, according to Gonzalez.
“It has become clear that tent and tarp-related fires are a grave public safety emergency for our city,” Gonzalez said in the press release. “Unsanctioned fires put our first responders, houseless individuals, and our neighborhoods at risk.”
Portland Street Response will not be barred from distributing sleeping bags and blankets under Gonzalez’s order.
The number of fires in and around homeless encampments has increased as Portland’s unsheltered population has grown in recent years. According to city data, the yearly number of “homeless-related” fires recorded by Portland Fire and Rescue more than doubled between 2019 and 2021. A November 2022 investigation by Street Roots found that the causes of these fires are frequently left unsolved by fire inspectors, often leading to speculation that homeless campers caused the fires. While it’s often suspected that fires are sparked by campers trying to stay warm, Portland Fire data shows that only 8.3% of all homeless-related fires since 2019 were caused by heating sources.
Since 2019, Street Roots reported, these fires have killed at least nine homeless Portlanders.
Gonzalez’s press release points to a Tuesday morning tent-related fire which killed seven dogs in inner Southeast Portland. It also includes a statement from city Fire Marshal Kari Schimel, noting that tent fires specifically put first responders’ lives at risk.
Distributing supplies to unhoused people is a central facet of Portland Street Response’s outreach work. While some calls may require immediate medical care or de-escalation tactics, others center on addressing clients’ unmet basic needs such as bus tickets to get to a doctor’s appointment or boxes of food. That work can also include offering unsheltered clients a tent or sleeping bag.
The response team also distributes supplies such as tents during community events, where responders hope to build trust among homeless Portlanders who may be wary of emergency services.
According to data collected by Portland State University’s Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative, Portland Street Response distributed 473 tents or sleeping bags in the first six months of operating citywide in 2022.
In a December report from Portland State University, one Portland Street Response employee described how valuable it feels to be able to offer tangible resources to help vulnerable Portlanders.
“It feels like just what I’m supposed to be doing,” said one unnamed responder. “I love that I don’t have to count how many tents I have in the back and be like, ‘Oh, sorry, I ran out. I only have two tents left, so I have to hold on to them.’ I can just give people what they need, and there’s no question about why I did this.”
Portland Street Response did not return a request for comment on Gonzalez’s decision to halt tent distribution. Researchers with Portland State University declined to comment, but noted that the decision’s impact will be reflected in its upcoming two-year evaluation of Portland Street Response.
Gonzalez’s announcement comes during a cold snap that has brought small amounts of snow and freezing temperatures to the Portland region. The National Weather Service forecasts below-freezing temperatures in the next three days, followed by heavy rain. For many sleeping outside, tents and tarps are the best form of protection from cold winds and rain.
In his press release, Gonzalez writes, “To Portland’s houseless community members: I implore you to seek shelter in public warming centers during cold weather events.”
Multnomah County’s public warming shelters are currently closed. And the number of standard shelter beds available for unhoused Portlanders remains inadequate. In 2022, the county’s homeless population was estimated to be more than 5,200, while the county currently hosts a total of 2,000 shelter beds.
Gonzalez did not respond to OPB’s request to explain how homeless Portlanders should protect themselves from the elements without tents and with the current shelter restraints. Gonzalez also did not explain how long this ban will remain in place.
Other city and county agencies are allowed to continue their distribution of tents and tarps. That includes the Joint Office of Homeless Services, a collaboration between Portland and Multnomah County.
Gonzalez’s announcement comes as Portland City Council begins work on eventually banning unsanctioned camping in public spaces. In November, commissioners passed a plan to ban street camping by 2024 and require that unhoused Portlanders move into shelter — including one of six planned city-run encampments holding up to 250 people.