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 the wrong position, 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 just 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 put in place earlier in the year, this is the only one that’s getting the axe.
The mayor is extending the life of two day-storage containers, 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 told the Mercury in recent days 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.
That was pretty much the status quo before February—a necessity since there's no way the city could enforce its camping ordinance across the board to begin with.
Hales' announcement comes less than a week after he placated concerned social services providers regarding a massive impending sweep of the Springwater Corridor. In the face of concerns—and a promised lawsuit from the Oregon Law Center—Hales agreed to push the sweep back a month. That's less than the law center had pushed for. A demand letter [PDF] the organization sent the city—obtained via public records request—shows the OLC initially pressed for "at least two additional months."
With his announcement today, the mayor probably dodges yet another lawsuit. As the Mercury was first to report, a judge dismissed a lawsuit over the safe sleep policy on July 13, but left the door open for plaintiffs—neighborhood representatives and business groups—to re-file.
With today's news, Paul Conable, the attorney representing plaintiffs in the suit, was unsure whether his clients would pursue the litigation (which was solely aimed at tossing the safe sleep policy).
"Our filing would be due tomorrow," Conable said, "if it's still necessary."