Recent comments President Donald Trump made about homelessness “destroying” West Coast cities are worrying some officials and experts in Portland.
The President repeatedly brought up homelessness on a campaign fundraising trip in California and blamed cities there for not solving the problem.
Some California politicians have suggested the president made his comments primarily to score political points against the leaders of a democratic state home to some of his fiercest critics.
In Portland, local officials worry that the comments signal a new focus on homelessness from the White House — and a push for a more punitive approach to people living on the street from the federal government.
A recent report on homelessness from the White House Council on Economic Advisors singled out Oregon and Washington, among others, as states with larger homeless populations than can be explained by factors like housing costs or weather.
The report argues that less rigorous enforcement of laws against loitering might contribute to homelessness, by making it more tolerable to sleep on the street. It suggests using police to move homeless people off the street and into shelter.
“… when paired with effective services, policing may be an important tool to help move people off the street and into shelter or housing where they can get the services they need, as well as to ensure the health and safety of homeless and non-homeless people alike,” the report concluded.
Portland officials and social service organizations held a press conference Wednesday to lay out their opposition to that approach.
“What they are considering isn’t a solution for homelessness, it’s yet another attempt to dehumanize people so they can be made invisible by shipping them out of sight,” said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
The WHCEA report cites work by sociologist Peter Rossi from 1989 and economist Brendan O’Flaherty from 1996.
But it doesn’t provide any recent or more specific evidence to support its claim that states like Washington and Oregon have more people living on the street because of less stringent policing.
An analysis by Portland’s auditor reached a different conclusion about the extent of police contact with homeless people in the city.
Following up on reporting by The Oregonian, the auditor found that approximately half of the total number of people arrested by the Portland Police in 2017-2018 were homeless, and that many appeared to be picked up for offenses that would not have been crimes if they had happened indoors, like drinking alcohol.
Kafoury and other local leaders blame high rates of homelessness on cuts to federal housing aid that started in the 1980s, and argue the White House is stigmatizing poor people for “federal failures.”
“It’s been up to local folks to be there for people who have no other choice than to live on the streets,” Kafoury said.
Portland’s leaders and the White House advisors’ report do agree on one key point.
Both say one of the most effective ways to reduce homelessness is with programs that prevent it, intervening before a person is evicted or loses their home.