Port Grimes

DID YOU HEAR? Homeless camping is illegal again.

At least, that’s what I’ve heard over and over since August 2, the day Mayor Charlie Hales announced he was snatching his controversial, six-month-old “safe-sleep” policy off the books.

This sentiment cropped up in a meeting of the homelessness-fighting A Home for Everyone coalition last Wednesday, when developer Brad Malsin made an impassioned (if a bit hypocritical) speech in favor of a new Northwest Portland shelter.

“The mayor has just decided that camping will be illegal again,” Malsin told a packed conference room. “Where are [the homeless] going to go?”

The same gross oversimplification popped up in online forums, and was convenient shorthand for Huffington Post coverage of the mayor’s decision.

So I looked into it. Did the numbers bear out what people seemed to believe? Had enforcement of the city’s anti-camping ordinance gone completely by the wayside during Hales’ experiment (which allowed people to camp overnight in small groups without fear of being swept)?

Surprise! It hadn’t.

The data yielded by a request for public records on camp cleanups (invoices, quarterly reports, property logs) show Portland’s many-tentacled anti-camping apparatus continued on while the “safe-sleep” policy was in effect.

In

• From July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, the city carried out 279 cleanup efforts, and was billed for about $73,870 of work by its primary contractor (which also included invoices for writing reports and lots of ambiguous “administrative” billings), along with many more thousands for Multnomah County inmate work crews.

• In the seven months before the safe-sleep policy went into effect, records show contractors working for private security firm Pacific Patrol Services carried out a monthly average of 25.1 cleanups (or at least posting notice that a cleanup was on its way), including a particularly robust 43 in November 2015.

• In the five months between February 2016 (when the policy was announced) and June 2016, there were an average of 20.6 cleanup efforts a month.

That amounts to an 18 percent reduction, on average. It’s not an insignificant decrease, but it can hardly be said the policy ended enforcement that will suddenly come roaring back now that it’s gone. Records show cleanups were carried out all over the city from February to June, from Slabtown, to the Central Eastside, to East Portland.

Here’s what Hales’ effort didn’t do: live up to its promise.

The policy was supposed to set expectations, offering needy Portlanders a way to bed down safely, while breaking up encampments that got unwieldy and flouted the new rules. It couldn’t do that, because Portland had nowhere near the resources to bring every errant encampment into line.

It still doesn’t have those resources, regardless of the new rhetorical position coming from the mayor’s office. The city’s struggling to attract new police recruits as seasoned officers flee to the comfort of their pensions. There’s still nowhere near enough shelter space or affordable housing. Rising rents are making people newly homeless all the time.

So it’ll be interesting to see how quickly this new proclamation—camping is illegal again!—fizzles into the realization that nothing has changed.

The sweeps will continue, and they’ll never be enough to fix the real problem.