A prototype of informational cards the city will hand out to help homeless Portlanders navigate new policy.
  • Dirk VanderHart
  • A prototype of informational cards the city will hand out to help homeless Portlanders navigate new policy.
This afternoon, Mayor Charlie Hales' office will reveal a set of policies that upend Portland's past strategies for dealing with homelessness.

In a City Council work session at 3 pm, Hales plans to lay out an experimental plan that would set rules under which the city's nearly 2,000 unsheltered homeless can sleep on sidewalks and "remnant" city property without fear of being unceremoniously rousted. The mayor also will create policy allowing people to sleep in their cars or recreational vehicles, and allow organized encampments stocked with city-provided pods.

The moves, which Hales' office says won't require formal council approval, are a newly sensitive approach for an administration that, at the outset of Hales' tenure, readily enforced the city's ban on camping and erecting structures in blanket fashion—a timeworn fallback for mayors grappling with public angst over homelessness. They also come at a notable time: As Hales winds down his tenure on City Hall's third floor, and makes way for a successor.

For homeless advocates I've spoken with, the proposals represent a more nuanced and empathetic view of the city's homeless crisis than has previously existed. According to Josh Alpert, Hales' chief of staff and the architect of the policy tweaks, they are designed to ease the strain on people stuck outside as officials work toward significantly reducing their numbers with new shelter, housing, and services in coming years. But they also create a set of expectations through which police and city bureaus can identify problematic camps unwilling or uninterested in working with the city, Alpert contends.

"The vast majority of people out there are legitimately looking for a place to get though the night," Alpert said in an interview this morning. He said Portland's traditional way of combating problematic or unsightly homelessness—through a dozen or more camp sweeps a day— has "resulted in this constant trauma that we’ve been creating. People sleeping with one eye open, being forced into unsafe places."

Alpert says he's not hoping to eradicate homelessness with the new ideas—that's being tackled by groups like A Home For Everyone, which is attempting to leverage $30 million in city and county funding to meaningfully improve Portland's homeless crisis. Instead, the question the mayor's office wants to address, he says, is what happens today. "What do we do to allow as many people as possible to wait patiently, comfortably, and safely while we build to tomorrow?"

The basics, laid out in a document [pdf] Alpert and others will flesh out for city commissioners this afternoon:

Homeless people can sleep on city sidewalks, and erect tents on some city land. Alpert says no tents or structures of any kind will be allowed on Portland sidewalks, but that people with nowhere else to go can use tarps and sleeping bags to shelter on the roadside, provided they're not blocking foot traffic, and are in groups of six people or less. This isn't meaningfully different from the city's practice of allowing people to sleep in doorways downtown, but would crack down on large clusters of tents and structures that have cropped up in Northwest Portland and the Central Eastside, Alpert says.

More significantly, Hales is proposing letting people erect tents on "remnant" city-owned properties around the city. Alpert used grassy patches situated near the bike and pedestrian ramps at the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge as an example. In such remnants, campers will be allowed to set up tents between 9 pm and 7 am, with an expectation that they stay in groups of six or less, pack up promptly in the morning, and keep things tidy. Alpert said campers shouldn't "get hung up on 'is this the right land?' The critical part is be responsible and pick up after yourself."

He also says this provision will help the city more meaningfully deal with sprawling and problematic camps that have cropped up along the Springwater Corridor and Central Eastside, among other places.

•Organized camps are going to increase—and use city-bought pods.
We've reported a great deal here about Hazelnut Grove and Forgotten Realms, two organized encampments on public land that are on the verge of inking formal land use deals with the city. Hales' proposal would increase those kinds of encampments on city land (none is currently identified, Alpert says), with a couple significant changes.

First, new self-organized camps would need to partner with a nonprofit agency that has a history of providing shelter. Those nonprofits would then be paid by the city as drop-in "camp hosts" that can keep a eye on things and offer help. Second, the city's investigating a wide array of "disaster relief pods" that it might purchase and provide to such encampments—an alternative to the patchwork of tiny houses that have sprung up at Hazelnut Grove.

Under the proposal, public money would purchase the pods, portable toilets, and nonprofit services, Alpert says. "We are closer to building an entire system," Alpert says.

As we've reported various Portland neighborhood groups have taken different tacks in response to Hales' increasing willingness to accept camps. Leaders of the city's seven neighborhood coalitions are mulling helping the city identify land for camps, while groups like the Overlook Neighborhood Association (OKNA) are rebuking Hales. Earlier today, in fact, the OKNA announced eight North Portland neighborhood association had signed onto its grievances. Among other things, the OKNA has asked a public roster of the names of any homeless people staying at city-sanctioned camps. It was unclear from the association's release whether each of its seven co-signers agreed with that provision.

•Sleeping in RVs and cars will be sanctioned under some conditions. Alpert calls this the "least developed" aspect of the plan, but says there will be a push to make it easier for people to sleep in their vehicles—whether on city land or in church parking lots. These lots, too, would be served by a city-provided "camp host." Historically, the city's not taken all that kindly to vehicle camping.

A new model for homeless shelters. Since declaring a housing emergency late last year, the city's added meaningfully to its inadequate shelter space. But Hales and Alpert—after a trip to San Francisco in January—say the shelter model itself is inadequate. They're preaching a gospel brought to town last year by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who's been talking to anyone who will listen about his city's Navigation Center, an invite-only shelter where the homeless are given access to extensive services and don't have to leave until they find housing. Hales and Alpert—along with Portland Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury—toured the center in late January. Alpert says Hales would like to explore similar offerings.

Alpert is very up front about the fact this is all an experiment. He says the city will try these things for six months or so, and determine what works and what doesn't. He also plans to go before city council in coming weeks to request roughly $5 million in general fund money that hasn't been allocated for other purposes, he says, to help get the effort off the ground.

One thing that will be interesting: Watching which bureaus buy into the system. Hales, after all, doesn't control many of the bureaus that sweep most often, such as parks, transportation, water, and environmental services. Alpert made clear that the commissioners at the helm of those departments can decide for themselves if they want to participate.

In particular, Commissioner Nick Fish—who oversees the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of Environmental Services—has appeared skeptical about the mayor's approach in recent weeks. A former housing commissioner, Fish said recently Hales hasn't communicated any new, overarching policy around homelessness as camps spring up around town. Fish has since met with Alpert about the new proposals, but declined to comment ahead of this afternoon's meeting.

This article has been changed to indicate that not all seven neighborhood associations that have signed onto the Overlook NA's concerns necessarily agree on the idea of a roster of homeless campers.