STOP ME if you’ve heard this one.
As officials prep for a massive sweep of the Springwater Corridor this week, newly minted Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese has been speaking up about his views on homeless camping—views he forged as head of the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct in 2006.
“Our officers were often getting dispatched to calls of people sleeping on porches and in doorways,” Reese recalls. “We wanted to offer some guidelines to our officers: Until we have enough shelter capacity and permanent housing for everyone who wants to go into it, we have to realize there’s just not enough space for everybody.”
So Reese gave his cops a notion of “low-impact” camping that officers could largely ignore, as long as there weren’t complaints.
“If you’re on private property, ask the permission of the property owner,” Reese says. “Camp in small groups of one, two, or three people. Pick up after yourself.”
Also: “You really can’t have structures in place. Those make it really difficult for people to move when we get complaints about behavior.”
As sheriff, Reese will be dealing with fewer homeless campers than he did as Portland’s police chief. But he says he’ll stick to those “low-impact” guidelines as the region comes to terms with the inevitable fallout of the Springwater cleanup.
It made me curious: Had the sheriff heard any citizen outcry since he began talking about those standards? Reese said he’d never gotten backlash—not even as a precinct commander a decade ago.
Which is funny, because Portlanders really dislike most of those ideas.
Reese’s “low-impact” guidelines, in case you didn’t notice, bear a strong resemblance to Mayor Charlie Hales’ “safe-sleep policy,” which was recently killed amid howling public outrage.
Both are based on the argument that widespread sweeping makes no sense when there’s nowhere else for people to go. And both seek to set guideposts that can earn some measure of good faith from law enforcement. Reese wants people to clean up their stuff. Hales’ proposal asked campers to pick up their sleeping areas by 7 am.
There are differences, of course. Reese’s three-person maximum is half of Hales’ six-person limit for sites. Reese says tents should always be prohibited, while Hales’ policy acknowledged the existence of rain.
And of course, Hales’ experiment didn’t practice what it preached. Large camps flourished. Citizen complaints went unheeded.
Reese himself wouldn’t acknowledge that the viewpoints are similar, telling me the mayor effectively sanctioned large-group camping with his plan and “told the police bureau to stand down on enforcement.”
But as the city preps for what’s certain to be a trying time, it’s worth remarking on how similar the two points of view are—and that while Hales’ policy was despised by many as soon as it was announced, Reese’s outlook has been met with a measure of acceptance.
If you can accept Reese’s view, you can accept its underlying premise: There aren’t enough services to house Portland’s growing homeless community.
Whatever the coming weeks bring, this city would do well to remember that.