Scene from a downtown Portland sidewalk.
Scene from a downtown Portland sidewalk. Doug Brown

Mayor Ted Wheeler's office has been discussing a strategy to ban homeless camping from areas of downtown Portland—and to move those campers into a "high-population outdoor camping zone." The plan, which has been largely discussed in closed-door conversations with city staff, has drawn alarm from homeless advocates and politicians alike.

"I believe that the creation of these zones would quickly lead to extremely detrimental outcomes for people experiencing houselessness," wrote City Commissioner Dan Ryan to Wheeler in an October 7 email. "These are our most vulnerable community members, and requiring them to move out of certain parts of the city and into large encampments with little to no social services is a recipe for disaster."

Ryan is the commissioner assigned to oversee the Portland Housing Bureau and the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS).

Neither Wheeler nor Ryan shared details of this strategy with the Mercury, but Ryan's email offers several hints. With the subject line reading, "My position on Villages beyond 60, Hard NO," it's clear that the message is in response to an earlier proposal to create a mass outdoor shelter (or village) for homeless Portlanders. City zoning codes currently disallow for any outdoor shelters to house more than 60 individual sleeping shelters. Ryan notes that a June City Council vote clarified that any large homeless encampments would be considered "high impact" by the city department that analyzes and removes homeless camps on public land based on their impact to the surrounding environment.

"Lastly," Ryan writes, "we do not have outdoor shelter providers who will engage in providing services to sanctioned encampments of this size."

This strategy is largely out of step with Wheeler's public response to Portland's homelessness issue. Wheeler has backed decisions made by the JOHS to fund supportive housing programs that help homeless residents retain permanent housing and, recently, endorsed a plan drafted by City Comissioner Dan Ryan to open six new smaller-scale outdoor shelters for those hoping to leave homelessness behind.

Asked by the Mercury to explain what proposals this email addresses, Wheeler sent this emailed statement: “Commissioner Ryan and I agree that we need many options on the table to address today’s houseless challenges. We also agree that large, high-population, sanctioned camp sites come with unique challenges and require additional vetting with service providers and community stakeholders. We will continue to work together in good faith to find solutions.”

Ryan's letter ends with this pledge: "I earnestly want to work with you to make strides in resolving our City's most pressing crisis; however I cannot support this approach for the reasons I've indicated above. I will continue to work with you closely, and in good faith, to find solutions."

Wheeler and Ryan are currently in talks with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury about combining budget funds to jointly support programs that address homelessness across the region. The collaboration has delayed city budget hearings previously scheduled for this week to early November.

Kafoury told the Mercury Tuesday that she has "not been a part of any conversations with the city" about camping bans or mass outdoor shelters.

Per a 2018 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, cities cannot ban camping in public spaces if there are no alternative shelter options available. This ruling sparked City Council's interest in expanding shelter options across the city, both in outdoor and indoor settings. Some homeless advocates have raised early concern that the legal guidance may mean homeless individuals will be forced by the city to relocate to these shelters, or face arrest. Nothing in the city's shelter policies reflect this particular fear at the moment.

Camping bans have been tested on Portlanders in the past. Around 2005, Portland City Council introduced a "sit-lie" ordinance, a policy that banned sitting and lying on public sidewalks. After the policy was found to disproportionately criminalize homeless Portlanders, the ordinance reached a district court ruling—and was found to be unconstitutional.

In 2010, under pressure from the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), then-mayor Sam Adams gave the policy another shot, this time branding it as a "Sidewalk Management Plan." The proposal would restrict people from sitting or lying within an eight-foot "pedestrian-use zone" on public sidewalks, effectively making it illegal to sit near a sidewalk's curb. The policy passed a council vote in 2010.

The last time the city's sidewalk rules made headlines was in late 2017, when Mayor Wheeler made eight downtown sidewalks entirely off-limits for sitting during the daytime. Like previous city policies, this decision was motivated by pressure from the city's business lobby, especially after Columbia Sportswear owner Tim Boyle penned an opinion piece for the Oregonian threatening to move the headquarters of Columbia's Sorel brand out of downtown headquarters, citing car theft and negative interactions employees had with people on the street.

Now, it appears sidewalk bans are again on the table. And there's a familiar name at the helm. Sam Adams, who now serves as Wheeler's homelessness liaison, has been leading conversations with city staff about homeless policies, which have again become of interest to downtown business owners. In May, Willamette Week reported that Adams met with representatives from several different downtown law firms to discuss moving homeless campers to city sanctioned campsite. Like Boyle, these firms threatened to relocate their offices out of downtown if the presence of homeless campers continued.

Adams declined the Mercury's request to comment on the proposal hinted at in Ryan's letter.