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Ask a random Portlander their opinion on the biggest issue currently facing our city and chances are the answer will in one way or another relate to housing. This spring, campaigns for city elections frequently returned to two central issues: the “affordable housing crisis” (brought on by recent rises in rents and no-cause evictions) and the growing visibility of Portland’s large homeless population. The two issues obviously go hand-in-hand. As rents continue to climb sharply and people are evicted from their rented homes so buildings can be sold to developers, city officials have had to scramble to pass 90-day notification protections. The added notice is helpful, but people with lower incomes are still getting squeezed out of housing, sometimes to the point of homelessness.
What makes this crisis a particularly troubling issue is how wide ranging it is. The stigma attached to homelessness causes many people to be callous in their response to the growing problem, even though the homeless can include entire families, military veterans and people with disabilities. Simply put, these are people who call Portland home. This has led many advocates to now refer to the problem more accurately as “houselessness.” People can be thrust into the streets temporarily or chronically, and there’s rarely a one-size-fits-all approach to meeting the needs necessary to prevent it. Homelessness does not imply criminality or even negligence, but many people nevertheless presume the worst about someone who has no roof over their head. On the other hand, there are also valid concerns from business owners and neighborhoods about the impact that large congregations of houseless people have on local livelihoods. And there are notable safety concerns involved, both within the houseless community and for the public at large.
Since Mayor Charlie Hales announced his “safe sleep policy” — which allows houseless people to sleep on sidewalks and well-lit public doorways during night hours without the risk of being confronted by police — our city’s homelessness problem has become even more glaring. Different people approach the issue from different angles. For those focusing on the surface level, the issue is an aesthetic one that can affect the bottom lines of businesses and property values. Others see public safety and sanitation concerns, as there have been reports of violence and fires in some tent communities, while drug paraphernalia and human waste are obvious biohazards. Taking the more humanitarian approach, crisis agencies and public assistance organizations seek whatever resources are available to shelter and feed houseless people, while providing additional assistance to help them get back on their feet. The problem simply outweighs the resources.
Not long ago, Portland was a city criticized for its stringent anti-homeless laws, having joined with San Francisco and Seattle during the 2000s in passing anti-camping and “sit-lie” laws that forbade reclining on sidewalks. But now, many see Mayor Hales’s safe sleep policy as the pendulum swinging too far to the other side. Some argue that the new rule makes it easier to be homeless but doesn’t make it easier to actually rise out of homelessness. Meanwhile, some businesses and homeowners have formed coalitions in order to make their voices heard, to the point that the City of Portland has even been sued, with the assertion that the mayor doesn’t have the power to unilaterally defy established anti-camping laws.
To fully comprehend the problem, it’s important to look at the current state of affairs with unbiased eyes. While it’s easy to lump all houseless people into one generalized group, like any population, Portland’s houseless are diverse individuals who have fallen on hard times for a variety of reasons. Only addressing the numerous root causes of houselessness will help keep people off the streets.
Not Enough Shelter Beds
The Portland Housing Bureau has recently estimated that there are upwards of 4,000 houseless people in the Portland area, with roughly half of those sleeping in shelters and temporary housing and the other half unsheltered. Those who are unsheltered sleep in doorways, corners of parking lots and in tents that have popped up under bridges and other vacant spaces around the city. While compassion is crucial in providing aid to people who are without shelter, there are also very valid safety concerns that need to be considered. Earlier this year, two syringe drop boxes were installed on either side of the waterfront, yet dirty needles continue to be a serious biohazard along the river, necessitating extensive cleanup by city workers. And while these types of hazards affect the public at large, it’s houseless people themselves that are consistently at risk of violence against them. There have recently been two stabbings and a shooting at various homeless camps.
Though tent camping on city streets in Portland has become tolerated, there’s the understanding that tents are to be removed promptly the following morning. That hasn’t been happening in the Springwater Corridor; the popular biking and pedestrian trail that connects Boring to downtown Portland has seen a spate of violence in the area, including a sexual assault on a cyclist this spring. There have also been environmental concerns, as trash, biohazards and the destructions of trees are rampant in the corridor. In May, police finally swept the area to clear out 300–450 campers to provide a safer environment for the Sunday Parkways family biking and walking program. But without available shelter beds, that was only a temporary fix. Campers moved back in after the event, prompting the city to take further action over the summer.
Currently, there are 747 emergency beds available year-round in Portland, with an additional 361 in the winter. The Portland Rescue Mission may be one of the more visible shelters. Located in Old Town, the Rescue Mission frequently lines West Burnside with individuals queuing up for as many as 700 hot and nutritious meals served there and 58 year-round beds (100 in the winter) for men. Nearby, there’s also the Salvation Army Female Emergency Shelter (SAFES), with 50 year-round beds for women.
Meanwhile, Transition Projects provides comprehensive services to assist people in transitioning out of homelessness. This includes various men’s and women’s emergency shelters such as a 70-bed Safety Off the Streets (SOS) shelter for women, the 100-bed Peace Shelter for men and the 167-bed Sears Shelter for women and couples. In addition, Transition Projects also heads up three different short-term housing (4–6 months) facilities that offer varying degrees of case management, life and jobs skills training and support services, typically with certain percentages of beds dedicated to houseless veterans.
Without enough beds to shelter our houseless population, the alternative has been camping. Besides the tent camping allowed by the safe sleep policy, there are currently three well-established and city-approved camps in Portland: Right 2 Dream Too, Dignity Village and Hazelnut Grove.
The Right 2 Dream Too camp, established in 2011, is located in Old Town off of West Burnside, right next to the Chinatown gate. It features a 24-hour security desk at its entrance and has strict rules against drugs and alcohol. In addition, the sleeping bags in the camp are laundered weekly. Beginning in 2013, efforts were made by the city to move the camp to a less visible Pearl District location under the Broadway Bridge. However, businesses in the Pearl fought against this proposal. In February 2016, the City Council approved a plan to relocate the Right 2 Dream Too camp to the Central Eastside to a public-owned plot zoned for industrial purposes.
Portland’s most longstanding city-recognized camp is Dignity Village, which rests on dedicated land out by the Portland International Airport. In late 2000, this camp rose up as a tent city downtown when a group of houseless people squatted on unused public land. After initial clashes with police, the small group of houseless people began gaining visibility as they asserted constitutional rights and received advocacy from the late homelessness activist Jack Tafari. Ultimately, Dignity Village was relocated to a city lot by the airport called Sunderland Yard in a compromise that recognized the camp’s legitimacy in return for relocation. Currently, Dignity Village has about 60 residents who live in tents, plywood shacks and even some more substantial structures. Dignity Village has a shower building, an office with internet access and other rudimentary facilities, all governed under bylaws and a board of directors.
Portland’s third recognized homeless camp is much newer. Hazelnut Village has existed on a plot of land in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood for about a year. With a cap of 25 residents, the Hazelnut Village community started as a tent city and now features makeshift structures that include common eating areas. The community’s organizers have set rules that include no violence or drugs. But the camp faces opposition from the Overlook Neighborhood Association, which has sought to end the camp and has convinced the city to force a less-structured neighboring camp, referred to as “Forgotten Realms,” to relocate.
As the visibility of the crisis grows, more and more unsanctioned camps are popping up and are given greater leeway. One such camp sprang up in January near Legacy Emanuel in North Portland as certain individuals couldn’t make it into approved camps such as Hazelnut Village. Some camps only last a short time. A small women-only sexual abuse survivor camp just west of the I-205 bridge in the Lents neighborhood lasted only a few days before the city made them move because the plot of land had been sold for $500,000 for eventual apartment building construction.
While Portland has many housing programs in place, they are often subject to long waits. Other times, it’s impossible to even get on the waiting list. Such is the case with the Section 8 housing choice voucher program in Portland, which provides low-income individuals with subsidized rent rates proportional to their income. Administered in Multnomah County by Home Forward, the Section 8 program has a closed waiting list that only briefly opens every three years or so. And that’s simply to get onto the lengthy waiting list itself, making Section 8 an unrealistic avenue to housing for those who don’t already have a voucher.
Another important resource in the Portland community is Central City Concern (CCC). Among their many services to combat homelessness, CCC has developed a housing choice program that allows individuals to select housing that fits their specific needs. This includes clean and sober living environments with both peer and staff support. There is also housing to assist people with mental health needs, individuals who have recently been hospitalized and those who have obtained employment and are transitioning back into self-sufficiency.
Meanwhile, grassroots advocacy has begun to form in hopes of developing new solutions to an amorphous problem. The “Portland for Everyone” housing activist group has come together — recently holding a well-attended gathering at Revolution Hall — to call for ambitious changes in our city, including increased density in single-family residential neighborhoods, stronger renter protections and a ballot measure to fund more affordable housing. The coalition includes developers, social justice advocates, environmentalists and urbanists in an effort to bring about a comprehensive approach to address Portland’s housing issues.
In the end, it may take unconventional thinking and groundbreaking methods to make the changes needed, so that everyone who wants a roof over their head in Portland can get one. A problem so vast and with so many contributing factors cannot be remedied overnight. Ultimately, it will take the community at large to come together to find the kinds of solutions that will ensure all Portlanders can sleep better at night.