Mayor Ted Wheeler is floating a proposal to use previously homeless Portlanders to convince people living outside to move into shelter — and decide who should be penalized for refusing to do so.
The plan follows Portland City Council’s November push to ban homeless camping by 2024 and create six large outdoor tent encampments for unsheltered Portlanders to move into. The preliminary “compliance program” is crafted to persuade people who are camping outside to move into an indoor shelter or one of the city’s planned outdoor tent encampments — without involving the police.
“At its core, this system is intended to incentivize and support people into shelter without criminal sanctions and to remove barriers that contribute to cycles of homelessness,” reads the draft proposal, which was emailed to several local elected officials the first week of March and recently shared with OPB. The draft was circulated as part of the mayor’s efforts to garner feedback and consensus from other leaders around the controversial policy shift.
The proposal recommends the mayor appoint a “community board” composed of outreach staff, peer volunteers, and social service providers to review cases in which people sleeping outside decline to move into a city-run encampment or other indoor shelter. Under this model, the board would meet with people resistant to moving directly to offer incentives — which according to the draft plan could range from bus passes to an opportunity to clear active warrants — to entice them to move.
“Our outreach teams right now can offer people immediate transportation to shelter or other services, but where those services are declined … that’s difficult,” said Stephanie Howard, the mayor’s public safety policy adviser. “What we’re envisioning is targeted outreach that is tailored to the specific needs of that person.”
This is slightly different from the current system the city uses to remove homeless camps. Portlanders living outside now usually learn that they have to move when the city posts a neon flier near their tents warning that the area soon will be cleared by a work crew. That posting is often followed by a site visit by a city outreach worker to help connect residents with shelter, a health care program, or other social services prior to the sweep.
What’s different about the mayor’s proposal is that this new outreach team will routinely follow up with people who decline services to offer various incentives. And in this scenario, outreach workers will be able to penalize those who don’t accept the city’s offerings.
Under the draft proposal, the board of outreach workers and peers would be allowed to instruct the city to give an unhoused person a criminal citation for public camping if they refuse to move after 30 days. This citation can result in a fine up to $100 or up to 30 days in jail.
Howard calls these citations a “last resort.”
“Our intention is for that to never have to happen,” she told OPB. “This is not about imposing criminal sanctions on poor people.”
Howard said she has been in regular meetings with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office to discuss ways that unhoused people could have warrants and criminal records cleared in exchange for agreeing to move into a shelter.
Liz Merah, a spokesperson for District Attorney Mike Schmidt, said that her office is still reviewing the city’s “draft compliance proposal” and hasn’t agreed to create any new systems. Merah said that the city expressed interest in referring unhoused campers to a county program that already helps people expunge criminal records for free.
“To that end, we are in conversations about how the city’s proposal could help facilitate connecting people to these existing resources, although nothing has been finalized yet,” said Merah.
Howard said that people who receive citations for camping could possibly have those citations cleared through a county diversion program or community court, but that would be up to the Multnomah County leaders to establish.
The mayor’s office has sought feedback from Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson on its enforcement proposal. Vega Pederson’s office declined to comment on the plan.
The mayor’s proposal stresses the importance of people with lived experience being homeless serving on the community board that meets with people living outside who decline services.
“Shared experience, which can often be negative or challenging to the individual, can be a powerful connecting point,” the draft reads.
Local organizations that already offer outreach with people living outside agree with that overall concept. But several argue that the city is misusing this trusted model to manipulate homeless Portlanders.
Kristle Delihanty founded PDX Saints Love, a nonprofit that hosts events and conducts street outreach to connect people living outside with needed social services. Delihanty and all of her employees have experienced homelessness, a quality that she says helps build trust with the people they’re trying to help.
She said that the city’s plan to use peers who’ve experienced homelessness to pressure unhoused people to accept services would do damage.
“The peer model is supposed to work like a bridge of trust,” she said. “It’s people saying, ‘Hey, I’ve gone through this myself, and I got my life together … let me show you the way out.’ But if peers are directing people into a mass camp where they’re further harmed, that trust is forever broken.”
Delihanty doesn’t believe the city’s planned 150-person outdoor tent encampments are a safe alternative for people living outside. She said that it’s dangerous to cluster so many people together in one area, and she worries about how the city will ensure people living in tents are protected from extreme weather. From her regular conversations with unhoused Portlanders, she said she has yet to hear from anyone who is hopeful about the planned camps.
“I’ve only heard extreme fear,” Delihanty said. “We’ve had an elevated number of people come to us fearful of what’s coming, asking for help to avoid being put into a camp.”
Kim James, an outreach worker who contracts with the city, has heard a different story. James said that in her experience, people who live outside have shown interest in a space where they can rest without the threat of a campsite sweep or having their belongings stolen.
“These sites are not going to be a magic wand,” James said. “But they are something that we can add to the continuum of services outreach workers can offer. I’m pretty sure people are going to be willing to try it out.”
James said it’s on outreach workers and the city to diminish fears around these encampments and allow them the opportunity to be successful.
“There’s not one solution to homelessness in Portland,” she said. “We can’t assume what works for ‘Person A’ will be the same for ‘Person B.’ As long as we have the same goal, it shouldn’t matter which path a person takes to get there.”
James and Delihanty agree that most unhoused Portlanders are interested in help. Delihanty said it’s “heartbreaking” to hear the city amplify an assumption that people are unwilling to do so.
“Anyone doing that work knows that the majority of people want services,” she said. “They want housing, they want shelter. It frustrates me when we hear our mayor saying people are not wanting this. It’s just not true.”
The problem, according to Delihanty, is that city outreach workers don’t have many options available to offer people outside.
“It’s usually just transportation to a congregate shelter, and that’s it,” Delihanty said. “And a lot of people understandably feel more safe outside than in a mass shelter.”
The city’s proposal banks on the idea that there will be more options. The draft says those outside could be relocated to “housing, [an] available shelter bed, Safe Rest Village” as well as one of the city’s outdoor tent camps. According to Multnomah County data, the region has about 2,000 shelter beds open to the public, including those in the city’s Safe Rest Villages. On average, 91% of those beds are occupied each day. In 2022, the county’s homeless population was estimated to be more than 5,200.
The proposal suggests that outreach workers collect specific data on people who refuse the city’s services, and make note of which housing options in particular they declined. It’s not clear what the city intends to do with this data.
The city has not stated when it hopes to begin enforcing a camping ban through this proposed compliance plan. In November, Wheeler suggested that enforcement would follow the creation of the six planned encampments. Earlier this month, Wheeler announced the first location of one, and noted that the city only has money to open three. Wheeler has asked Multnomah County and the state government to pitch in funds to open the remaining camps, but neither have publicly agreed to help. The first camp is slated to open this summer.