YOU WOULDN’T have known it from the increasing panic over homelessness, but there was actual excitement over Mayor Charlie Hales’ “safe sleep” policy.
In a nation where there’s an increasing acknowledgment that criminalizing homeless people for being homeless is wrong, Hales’ six-month experiment—which formally allowed small groups to sleep on sidewalks or camp on “remnant” properties, since there was nowhere else for them—looked like something to watch.
And not only in February, when Hales’ office unveiled the much-discussed policies. Just last Wednesday, July 27, national advocates were thinking hard about the safe sleep experiment.
Eric Tars, a senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, was at a conference in Washington, DC, that day. He told me he’d been planning on spotlighting Portland as a national leader in not criminalizing homelessness for a talk he was giving.
The problem: Hales had recently announced a massive sweep of the Springwater Corridor.
“Whereas we would have given Portland a very ringing endorsement before... now we have to say that we’re watching the situation much more closely to see how it develops,” Tars said.
And now we know how it develops. A little less than six months after it was introduced, Hales announced Tuesday that the safe-sleep policy is officially dead—effective immediately. (Local homeless advocates had advanced warning of the plan.)
“The guidelines caused confusion,” Hales’ office said in the announcement. “People believed that camping was made legal, and outreach workers and law enforcement struggled to educate people about the difference between a safe night’s sleep and unsanctioned camping.”
While Hales offered assurances he “remains committed to the principles behind the Safe Sleep Guidelines,” it’s impossible to ignore a glaring distinction: Of a raft of new policies Hales has put in place in the face of the homeless crisis, this is the only one that’s getting the axe.
The mayor is extending access to two shipping containers for day storage, and will continue to place dumpsters and portable toilets in areas frequented by homeless Portlanders, he says. He’ll modify, but continue, plans to establish more organized encampments around the city. And he’ll tweak a system that collects complaints about homelessness in one place.
But the safe-sleep policy, arguably the most radical—and, some said, rational—of the mayor’s actions on homelessness, is gone.
This isn’t out of the blue. Hales had recently told the Mercury the policy hadn’t worked out as he’d hoped. The mayor also says he’ll still prioritize enforcement in certain areas more than others, and will try to revamp the policy with experts’ input.
What’s hard to ignore, though, is how much this feels like an older version of Hales—one who’d planned on running the city for another four years.
Those plans ended last October, and the months since have been full of a willingness to boldly experiment. For a variety of possible reasons—changing staff, increasing public pressure—that era seems to be waning.
As Hales’ press release Tuesday noted: “The public should be aware that the City’s camping ordinance was and remains in effect; unsanctioned camping is not permitted in the City.”