Portland's former housing commissioner, Nick Fish, has largely stayed silent over the past several months as turf he so fiercely protected was taken away by Mayor Charlie Hales and carved up in curious ways in the wake of the city's budget process.
First, Hales announced, in his State of the City speech, that addressing the "epidemic" of homelessness and aggressive panhandling would be one of his top first-term priorities. Then Hales gave the housing bureau to Dan Saltzman, who hadn't been a notable housing advocate in his decade-plus on the council. Then Hales began convening informal meetings on homelessness with reps from the Portland Business Alliance and law enforcement and only a few providers and not anyone from the housing bureau or Fish's office.
And then Hales, in the past three weeks, showed which hand he'd be leading with in his plan to address homelessness. He wasn't ready with grand plans for services, but instead sent cops out to roust a city hall protest and then sweep visible campsites in and around downtown. Hales said last week it was better to address the problem of "lawlessness" than let it fester while working up plans for "homelessness."
Now, apparently, Fish isn't holding back anymore. I contacted him for comment for a story we'll be publishing tomorrow on housing, and he gave me a stinging statement calling into question Hales'
and Saltzman's compassion and leadership on an issue he clearly still holds fairly dear.
Since the days when Bud Clark was mayor, this community has pioneered long-term, cost-effective strategies for ending people's homelessness. It has always been a balanced and compassionate approach. We enforce the law, but we also invest in services that people need and affordable homes.
It's one of the reasons Portland is viewed as a national model in addressing homelessness. Over the past few weeks, I've heard from many concerned people in our community and they have asked very profound questions. Such as are we still committed to solving homelessness? Or just to displacing it? Who is leading our efforts? And why is the language they are hearing so harsh? The language of epidemics and lawlessness. And why is there so little compassion?
I believe we have worked too hard as a community to turn back the clock now. We have a very broad coalition that has been very effective at addressing homeless one person at a time. I share the concerns that I've heard from the community about our current approach. And I believe it's imperative that this mayor engage all of his partners in developing our approach to ending homelessness.
There are a lot of people who are concerned and are openly questioning whether we are prepared to abandon an approach that has proven very successful over the years. And they are hungry for leadership. I share their concerns.
This is the second time a sitting commissioner has publicly questioned Hales' compassion. Commissioner Amanda Fritz, incensed over Hales' decision not to fully fund sex trafficking programs during the budget, gave a long speech as part of a rare "no" vote on the city's budget. That move, along with several others, chilled relations between Fritz and Hales for a time. It's fair to wonder if Fish is worried the same might happen after what's been, by most accounts, a reasonably cordial relationship.
UPDATE 6:20 PM: Fritz has commented on Fish's statement, defending the sentiment behind it.
"Clearly Commissioner Fish continues to care about housing, passionately," she says. "Re-assigning bureaus doesn't re-assign hearts."
UPDATE 6:30 PM: Israel Bayer of Street Roots, building off Fish's comments about a balanced approach to homelessness, has supplied a list of proposals he'd like to see Hales and the council get behind to assuage community concerns. The proposals realistically acknowledge that some conduct on the sidewalks—harassment and violence—is unacceptable and needs to be firmly, if compassionately, addressed.
The following is what Street Roots has recommended the city do to respond to homelessness. Maybe the business community would match a million dollars for rent assistance?
• $1 million dollars for rent assistance to target hard to reach populations, including homeless families and youth downtown.
• Additional outreach workers to support JOIN and Janus Youth to provide harm reduction approaches to working with people in camps and on sidewalks.
• Additional mental health outreach workers and housing vouchers to target people experiencing mental health crises on the streets downtown.
• A committee to look strategically at increased, on-going revenue to support housing and homeless services in Multnomah County.
• Providing resources for two to four police officers to walk the beat in the cities central core to develop relationships and to target/detour violent or harassing behaviors.
• Create an organized and central line of communication between police officers, private security, park rangers, outreach workers and local businesses experiencing problems downtown.