Portland leaders approved a controversial plan Thursday to ban unsanctioned camping in the city as constituents seethe over the region’s unabated homeless crisis.
The plan, composed of five resolutions, would create six large city-approved camping sites, build 20,000 units of affordable housing, and allow Portland leaders to prohibit unsanctioned camping on city streets. After an amendment introduced by Commissioner Carmen Rubio, the council agreed to cap the size of the camps at 250 people rather than the earlier proposed maximum of 500.
The proposal, which would eventually require everyone living on the streets to move into shelters, has proven deeply controversial. Critics, including many homeless service providers and activists, denounced the resolutions as a thinly-veiled attempt to criminalize homelessness. Supporters have cautiously praised the plan as a necessary step to clean up the city — if the city can really build the amount of shelters needed to clear the streets of tents.
The plan was crafted by Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan. Ryan oversees Portland’s housing bureau. Rubio and Commissioner Mingus Mapps joined them in voting yes on all five of the resolutions. Only Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty voted against some of the resolutions.
Hardesty, who is facing a tough bid for reelection next week against a challenger who has called for a tougher approach on camping, voted no on the resolution aiming to ban it — the most controversial part of the package by far. She called it “cruel and inhumane.”
“I’ve had numerous people tell me it would be the politically smart thing to do to vote yes on this resolution. And frankly it would be easy for me to do that,” she said. “But saying we will magically wave a wand in 18 months and there will be no more street camping is not real. These resolutions contain no code changes, identify no funding or land, and have no agreements between jurisdictional partners.”
Both the shelter and housing portions of the plan are likely to be extremely expensive. The city budget office said the city-sanctioned camping sites could cost between $3 million and $6.8 million yearly – and that’s if the city built only three camps serving 150 people. City budget writers said the affordable housing units could cost approximately $9.8 billion to build.
The proposal will also require partnerships with the Metro regional government, state leaders and the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, among other stakeholders. It remains unclear whether the council will get the support and money they need from other agencies to make their vision a reality. Leaders at both Multnomah County and Metro have said they support the mayor’s goals of turning around the region’s homeless crisis, but have yet to commit any funding.
Wheeler said Thursday he hoped the package would force the region’s leaders to work together and called it a “necessary first step.”
“We should have a robust mental health safety net and we don’t,” he said. “I’m hoping this conversation — if nothing else — pushes the conversation to the forefront where it should have been years ago.”
More, smaller camps
Thursday’s session was a chance for the council members to introduce changes to the plan after nearly 200 people testified on it last week. Public testimony had stretched for nearly seven hours with Portlanders sharply divided on the plan.
Hardesty and Rubio introduced the most consequential changes Thursday.
A majority of the council supported Rubio’s amendment to make the camps smaller. Instead of the city trying to build three camps with a maximum of 500 people, Rubio proposed having a maximum of six camps capped at 250 people. Homeless service providers have warned that shelters with 500 people could quickly grow unruly and unsafe.
“My goal here is to make it abundantly clear that we recognize and hear the concerns about size and because of the compelling testimony we’ve heard,” Rubio said.
Wheeler was the only council member to vote against the change, saying he wanted to “maintain the flexibility behind the original proposal.”
Hardesty introduced 10 amendments. Some of her asks — such as a requirement that camps larger than 150 get special approval by the council and a push to get the new shelters built within six months of securing funding — were not supported by any of her colleagues. Other amendments — including her request that the camps be spread evenly around Portland and be built with facilities to address the needs of people with disabilities — became part of the final package.
Her introduction of proposed amendments included a jab at Ryan, who had previously opposed the mayor’s idea of building large homeless camps.
As she introduced a change related to the size of the camps, she read an email Ryan had sent to Wheeler on Oct. 7, 2021, in which he wrote he had “grave concerns with the concept of creating high-population outdoor camping zones.” Ryan’s email was a response to a memo sent by mayoral aide and former Mayor Sam Adams, which outlined a plan to create up to three, 1,000-person homeless shelters.
“I’m curious commissioner, how did you change so radically in one year?” she asked Ryan, who was next to her on the council dais.
“This has been a thoughtful dialogue with a real plan that’s included many other stakeholders in the dialogue and with services. So we are in a different place today than when that was written,” he responded tersely.
Concerns about rushing
Thursday’s vote comes despite pushback from the Oregon ACLU and Street Roots, a homeless advocacy group, to delay the vote. The ACLU had sent the city council a legal notice earlier Thursday warning the plan might be unlawful.
Federal courts have said municipalities cannot ban unsanctioned camping unless they have enough available shelter beds. City leaders are hoping to get around the ruling by building enough shelter beds for everyone living outside.
In Thursday’s legal notice, the ACLU warned the council they could be violating the landmark Martin v. Boise, Idaho ruling. The group also accused city leaders of prioritizing business and real estate voices and “drowning out the voices of everyday Oregonians and directly impacted houseless people … running afoul of the viewpoint neutrality that the First Amendment requires.”
The accusation refers to the testimony order of last week’s council session. Ryan had asked some Portland Realtors and brokers to speak at the start of the seven-hour-long council session in support of the measure, but failed to make clear that the speakers had been invited to testify. While it’s common for commissioners to invite someone to council to offer their opinion about pending resolutions, it is typically made clear that these people have been invited to speak by a council member.
“This has not been an equitable, democratic process — dangerously so for people experiencing homelessness,” said Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots. “Money seems to buy access.”
Sand joined many homeless advocates Thursday in asking the council to delay the vote until there was more time for people, specifically unhoused Portlanders, to weigh in.
But others, like Jason Bolt of Revant Optics, a manufactured lens company based in Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, urged the council to move faster. He said he wanted the council to pass the resolution in the hopes that it could improve safety issues near his business.
He said his employees can no longer use the sidewalks near his facility due to a chop shop, RVs and tents blocking the sidewalk. He said his complaints have gone ignored by city leaders and the police don’t do anything about the camp when he calls. He warned he was seriously considering leaving Portland if the camp wasn’t addressed within the month.
“It’s just a safety issue for me. I realize there are people living in those situations [who] also have safety issues. …. Let me be really clear. This isn’t us versus them,” he said. “But we have to think about Maslow’s hierarchy, right? If we don’t have safety, we can’t be creative.”
“Nothing on the table today will address your issues 30 days from now,” Hardesty warned him.
“I know,” Bolt responded. “It was an opportunity to speak with you.”