Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced Tuesday that he would immediately “sunset” his policy allowing homeless people to pitch tents on public property citywide.
It’s a major reversal of a policy that was celebrated by service providers and advocates who work with homeless people but caused livability issues in some neighborhoods and prompted business groups and neighborhood associations to sue the city.
OPB wanted to know what the policy change would mean in practical terms for the Portland Police Bureau, which has to enforce camping rules in the city.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q&A with Portland Police Sgt. Pete Simpson
OPB: What kind of direction does the bureau have from the mayor on whether they will be resuming sweeps of camps or when to move a camp and when not?
Sgt. Pete Simpson: Moving forward, what officers will have the discretion to do is enforce either the city code or state law when it comes to camping and related issues that come up around folks living on the streets.
The policy that was in place was somewhat challenging for officers. It became very hard to enforce it just because of the sheer number of camps that came up all over the city, whether it was two or three tents or the larger encampments. When you get that larger scale population, it is a different challenge than someone who has set up a tent outside a business.
For officers, now they will be able to utilize the existing laws and not have the policy confusion piece. There is no immediate plan by officers or the bureau to go out there and try to address every single tent in the city. It’s just not feasible. The priority for us to respond is for public safety issues first.
OPB: Can you give us an example of what would constitute a “public safety issue” that would prompt somebody to get arrested?
Simpson: Our goal is to not arrest anyone. Our goal is to get people connected to services and find alternate places to sleep. And we know that’s challenging right now. We aren’t looking at this as, ‘We get to go out and arrest people.’ It doesn’t help the problem, it’s not compassionate, and it’s not consistent with the values of the organization.
But we also have to recognize that there are times when groups of people get together and there are complaints of violence, criminal activity, open drug use, the chop shops of stolen property that seems to pop up. Those are going to take higher priority because they are more criminally based than just someone needing a place to sleep.
Keeping people moving sometimes can alleviate some of the entrenched criminal behavior that comes with the camps. It’s not the best alternative, but it may be one of the only alternatives we have until more shelter space opens.
For neighbors and residents who are complaining about campers in their neighborhoods, they too need to be understanding that this problem we all face is not going to change overnight.
This policy change doesn’t change that for the police. We can’t come out and immediately make these problems go away. We have to be thoughtful about our resources.
OPB: Our ballpark estimate is that there are at least 400 people living on the Springwater Corridor Trail and probably another 500 people or so spread across the city easily. Do you have your own rough estimate of how many people are sleeping outside? What’s the size of the police force?
Simpson: We rely on the service providers. If the numbers you gave [are accurate] — roughly 900 people, give or take living on the streets — we have about 885 police officers all the way from chief down to the brand new officer. We are only talking about 335 or so officers in patrol. That’s over a seven-day week and five different shifts. If you’re just looking at sheer numbers, there’s no comparison.
As an everyday practice, we’re responding to hundreds of calls that have nothing to do with homelessness. Our resources are stretched very thin. You have armed robberies, auto thefts, child abuse, domestic violence that are all going to be far more important than a complaint about some people illegally camping on the sidewalk.
OPB: Many of the things you just named are events — things that happen and then are over. On the flip side, if you’re the person living across the street from a camp, it’s every single day.
Simpson: It’s not comparing who’s more important from a victim standpoint, but you have the emergent crimes and then the entrenched actions. A house full of squatters is something that as an officer, it’s not an event where you can fix it and make it go away. It takes lots of time and resources. At the same time, you’re being asked to do all the emergent events too.
It’s kind of a perfect storm. We don’t have enough people, and there’s an abundance of, for lack of a better term, nuisance activity that is entrenched in certain parts of the city. We’re being very practical about the approach.
We need everybody to understand we cannot make things go away overnight.