It would seem like once the summertime weather elbows out the winter rains, life would become slightly easier for homeless men and women around town. But, in fact, the opposite is true. In the next few weeks, winter shelters will close and severely limit the number of beds available around town. During the summer months, only 300 beds will be available for an estimated 1600 homeless.
That leaves more than 1000 homeless in double jeopardy: First, the city has enacted Title 14, a city ordinance that severely curtails both outdoor camping and loitering (the sit/lie ordinance); and second, city hall has been slow to enact any wide reaching plan to remedy issues for homeless men and women.
"It's a crime to sleep outside," says Genny Nelson, a lead organizer at Sisters of the Road Café, a downtown homeless advocacy group. "The anti-camping ban criminalizes the homeless. There's a $150 fine," she says, referring to a city ordinance enacted by Mayor Vera Katz in 1992. "From what I hear," Nelson adds, "people are hassled by the police an average of two times a night, which makes getting a good night's sleep very hard."
For the past few years Nelson has helped direct Crossroads, a program through Sisters devoted to chronicling stories of homelessness and decriminalizing it. Right now the group's agenda is intently focused on snuffing out the anti-camping ban in Portland.
"I don't think there's a political will on city council now to change the ban," says Nelson, "so we need to create a massive public will to change it." On Wednesday, Crossroads distributed 60 sleeping bags after laying them like a carpet in the middle of Pioneer Square.
Yet for all Nelson's enthusiasm and creative protests she doesn't expect much of a response from city council, who have made it clear the camping ban is non-negotiable. "I don't see the political support to repeal the ban," says Marshall Runkel, a staff assistant to council member Erik Sten. "Council," continues Runkel, "including Erik, are of the position that allowing people to camp isn't an appropriate response to homelessness. Homeless advocates can still work together but we're not going to ever agree on this. "
City Hall has its own ideas about getting the homeless off the streets. "People become homeless for many different reasons, but you have to address those underlying causes," says Runkel. Runkel and his boss, Sten, have been charged by Mayor Katz to come up with a new plan addressing Portland's homeless--changes that, say homeless advocates, are long overdue. The last plan was formulated in the early '90s and uses a now-outdated shelter model. Runkel explains the old approach to the homeless was to find temporary shelter, then get them stabilized (cleaning up drug habits, for example), and as the last step, find permanent housing. But a new national model is emerging that uses an inverted plan: First find a permanent home and then address everything else afterward.
A local pilot program backs up that concept. Called "Transitions to Housing," from 2001-2002 the city program gave $1 million to local organizations to secure permanent housing for people by providing initial rent assistance. "It was a resounding success," says Runkel, who hopes to incorporate the program into the city's homeless policy. "It costs $1000 a night to stay in a hospital, $150 to stay in jail and $30 for a shelter, but only $18 for permanent housing," he added. "We have to figure out how to reallocate our resources."