As Portland police prepare to increase sweeps of homeless camps – which had largely been paused due to COVID-19 concerns – a coalition of North Portland neighborhood groups is pushing for a different approach.
They’ve asked the city to accept the reality of these camps, for now, and to develop managed campsites throughout Portland, as an alternative to what Bridgeton Neighborhood Association chairman Tom Hickey called “unbridled, unmanaged random camping” happening in many areas today.
"Roughly, what we're looking for is a way to clear the resistance amongst the neighborhood associations to the homeless camping that's going on right now," Hickey told "Think Out Loud" on Friday.
Many neighborhood association members are frightened about crime, public health, human waste and trash at informal campsites occupied by people living in tents instead of permanent housing, Hickey said.
Housed people often see these campers as invaders, he added.
Five North Portland neighborhood association boards have endorsed a joint statement asking city leaders to build on the examples of Dignity Village and Kenton Women's Village, and to establish multiple safe, legal and managed camps where residents can self-govern, access toilets and showers, and connect to social services.
In the short term, before more permanent camps are established, the statement asks the city to create sanctioned camping locations equipped with portable toilets, hand-washing stations, garbage collection and COVID-19 protective gear.
In many cases, that means neighborhoods would have to accept, rather than fight against, encampments in their midsts, Hickey said. “We would like to ask all of the neighborhood associations to look within themselves and have their own debates about, where would you be able to put up with (this)? Would you be able to make an ally of a camp, rather than an enemy of the camp?”
He said he anticipates that some neighborhood groups – especially in wealthier parts of Portland – may resist the proposal to allow dispersed camping.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Hickey said. But the current system of sweeping informal camps makes it harder for people experiencing homelessness to develop stable lives and increase their participation in mainstream society. “We all have a responsibility to reach out to people and help them come back to society.”