Portland Mayor: Homelessness May Seem Like It's Getting Worse Before It Gets Better

By Kristian Foden-Vencil (OPB)
Portland, Ore. April 30, 2019 2:20 a.m.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler talked about affordable housing, police bias and equalizing the economy in his state of the city speech.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler talked about affordable housing, police bias and equalizing the economy in his state of the city speech.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler stuck closely to facts and figures in his "State of the City" address Monday night and refrained from announcing any glitzy new ideas.


He focused instead on two of the city's nagging problems — concerns about bias within the police force and homelessness, which he said may seem like it’s getting worse before it gets better.

Wheeler said after decades of inadequate housing investment and problematic criminal justice policies, Portland is now on the right path.

He pointed to the two housing bonds recently passed — one in Portland, the other at the regional level. He said they are giving everyone a chance to live in safe, stable housing.

In the first two years, Portland’s 2016 housing bond is halfway to creating 1,300 units. He said the Portland Housing Bureau also added 800 affordable units last year and promises another thousand more this year.

“Last year, we moved more than 6,000 people out of homelessness and into housing,” Wheeler said.

“We prevented nearly 7,500 people, people who are identified as being at the greatest risk of becoming homeless, we prevented those from becoming homeless in the first place. We’ve doubled our shelter capacity and we’ve redesigned how those shelters work.”

Related: Portland-Area Voters Pass $653 Million Affordable Housing Bond

Wheeler said for the first time on Tuesday the Portland Housing Bureau would use their new authority — given by amendment in the Oregon Constitution last November — to make its bond issues go further.

“This Solicitation makes $70 million in bond funding available for new construction projects, property acquisition, and the rehabilitation of existing buildings for permanently affordable housing,” Wheeler said.


He dedicated five pages, out of his 14-page speech to housing.

Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz said the mayor emphasized the progress the city is making on difficult problems.

“I think it was a hopeful speech in terms of all of the things that are being done. And giving the numbers, that actually yes, people are being helped,” said Fritz, referencing Wheeler's focus on housing and homelessness.

“It’s obviously something that all Portlanders are very concerned about.”

The next biggest section of Wheeler’s address was dedicated to bias within the Portland Police Bureau.

Related: Portland Officers Kill Stabbing Suspect; 4 People Sent To Hospital With Stab Wounds

He said officers are tasked with a dangerous and often thankless job. But he’s asked Police Chief Danielle Outlaw to make sure they’re serving the community equally and fairly.

“Now in a city of more than 600,000 people, I know many of you understand this and are largely supportive of our police – but there are still many in this community who fear them. I understand that as well and that’s why I’m determined to work with the police bureau to change that,” he said.

He said the Portland Police Bureau has made significant progress, through initiatives such as implicit bias training. He said the ‘use of force’ is down, the equity team has been beefed up, transparency has increased, and the bureau has transitioned from a gang enforcement team to a gun violence reduction team.

He said the bureau has also beefed up the Behavioral Health Unit to better address the needs of those in crisis on the streets. And he said he created the Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing so police and community members could better hold the bureau accountable.

Wheeler also spoke of expanding Portland’s economy to help more of its people.

He said the scale of Portland’s economic opportunity is out of balance. So the city has helped women and people of color strengthen their companies and get better access to startup money.

Wheeler mentioned several other high points, including work to make Portland one of the cleanest cities in America; exploring the use of 5G technology in the city; and the city’s Climate Action Plan.