Shelter beds at Portlands WyEast Shelter.
Shelter beds at Portland's Wy'East Shelter. Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

Portland’s homeless shelter providers will be the first to tell you that building more shelters is not the solution to ending the city’s homelessness crisis.

“It doesn't end homelessness. It relocates it,” says Andy Miller, director of nonprofit shelter provider Human Solutions. “We always favor permanent housing over short-term shelter.”

That’s why some of the region’s top shelter providers have come out strongly against a seemingly slapdash proposal from Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office to relocate thousands of unhoused Portlanders into mass shelters staffed by the national guard. The plan was originally introduced as three indoor shelters, each with 1,000 beds, but has since morphed into a proposal to create mass outdoor encampments.

The policy appears to be informed by people who have neither experienced homelessness nor worked with the unhoused community. Instead, it feels tailor-made for those who are more concerned about their property values plummeting due to the city’s homeless encampments than the wellbeing of those sleeping outside.

Wheeler’s proposal has been framed as something of a last resort to address Portland’s growing homeless crisis, with the mayor saying he will “leave no stone unturned” to solve the issue. But homeless service providers say Wheeler has had the ability to solve the city’s homeless crisis for years—he just hasn’t taken the opportunity.

“The city talks about ‘leaving no stone unturned,’ and it doesn’t feel like we’re actually doing that,” said Brandi Tuck, director of Portland Homeless Family Solutions, a shelter operator. “There are a lot of proposals on the table [that are] proven to work. The city has just ignored them.”

Katrina Holland, the director of homeless service provider JOIN, agrees. She said that her organization and others have found success in “master leasing” apartments to unhoused clients—a process in which an organization makes an agreement with a private landlord to cover rent costs for formerly unhoused tenants. This agreement turns the organization into a go-between for the tenant and landlord, with organization staff members assisting tenants in reporting maintenance issues or working with landlords if any issues with the tenancy arise.

“This puts people in housing within a matter of days,” says Holland.

And landlords are eager to sign on. According to Holland, JOIN received two requests from landlords in the past week offering to master lease apartment units to JOIN for unhoused Portlanders.

“There’s a stereotype that landlords don’t want to participate. That’s not true,” says Holland. “These are private-market landlords who have specifically said they’re willing to lower their screening criteria for tenants to make it work.”

Holland says she’s offered to help the city partner with local landlords to consider master leasing some of Portland’s empty apartment complexes—but each time has been told by city staff that the idea is “too controversial.”

"The city talks about ‘leaving no stone unturned,’ and it doesn’t feel like we’re actually doing that.”

Homeless shelter providers also point to consistent longtime feedback from unhoused Portlanders that the best path towards housing for those living outside is placement in an autonomous outdoor village, like Northeast Portland’s Dignity Village or the Rose Quarter’s Right 2 Dream Too. It’s a suggestion that has come up again and again in the city’s past attempts to police homelessness, most recently from those living in the C3PO Queer Affinity Village on SE Water Ave. After a nonprofit was appointed to oversee the previously self-run village, its residents expressed deep distrust and disappointment with the city.

“The city says autonomous villages are a liability issue,” said Holland. “But they think putting thousands of traumatized strangers in a shelter, living together, isn’t a liability?”

While Wheeler says that moving unhoused people into mass outdoor shelters is a humane response, Tuck disagrees. Tuck explains that people experiencing homeless are often in a permanent state of “fight or flight”—a stress response to danger that activates a person’s sympathetic nervous system.

“That means you can’t rely on the human functions of your brain—cognition, logical thinking, critical thinking, language and speech understanding,” Tuck says. “So we’re talking about taking folks who are in survival mode and putting them all in mass shelters and expecting them to follow rules and get along with one another? Their brains are not capable of doing that. That exacerbates that distress response. We are creating neurobiological harm to these folks.”

While those who are most familiar with homelessness have raised alarms about Wheeler’s mass encampment plan, Portland City Hall has heard from many residents in the past week who strongly support Wheeler’s idea. But if the desire is to sweep unhoused people from public view, those residents should know this proposal isn’t the answer.

Numerous studies have shown there’s no proof that people who enter shelters are more likely to leave homelessness behind. A 2020 UCLA study on the effects of housing support on homeless recidivism found that a person was just as likely to remain homeless if they stayed in a shelter than if they refused to stay at one.

“All this will be is a temporary detention,” says Tristia Bauman, an attorney at the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC). “Research tells us that most people in shelters will return to the streets. It’s not going to solve the problem. You’re going to continue to see people in public spaces, and you’re going to have wasted time and money.”

The same UCLA study found that the cost of short-term shelter housing was costlier than investments in permanent housing.

Of all the programs that shelter operator Portland Homeless Family Solutions offers to homeless Portlanders—from rent assistance to shelter beds—Tuck says the shelter programs consistently and “by far” cost the most per person. Miller, with Human Solutions, suggests that the city take the money it’s hoping to use on mass outdoor shelters and instead use it to move the thousands of Portlanders currently living in Portland shelters into permanent housing.

“Thousands of people in housing overnight,” Miller asks. “Can you imagine how impactful that would be?”

NHLC’s Bauman sees Wheeler’s proposal as an attempt to meet the requirements of the 2019 legal ruling Martin v Boise, which prohibits cities from penalizing people for sleeping outdoors if they are unable to access shelter.

“Shelters can serve a harm-reducing purpose, but only if they’re actually reducing harm.”

“In the wake of the Martin decision, we have seen communities change law enforcement practices to avoid constitutional liability and create more temporary shelters,” says Bauman.

But the idea that cities can legally remove unhoused people from public spaces so long as the city provides adequate shelter space won’t protect cities from litigation, Bauman says. The Martin decision hinges on the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. If, for instance, someone with a serious mental illness is forced into a mass shelter—an environment that amplifies their illness and worsens their symptoms—the city could still be liable for threatening that person’s Eighth Amendment rights.

“Shelters can serve a harm-reducing purpose,” says Bauman. “But only if they’re actually reducing harm.”

While Portland has been experiencing a homelessness crisis since before Wheeler entered office, it wasn’t until this month that the mayor has, with a sense of unusual urgency and purpose, decided to propose corralling unhoused people in mass shelters. While it may serve as a temporary salve to Portlanders who are eager to see homeless campers off the streets, it’s also a plan that will ultimately perpetuate the city’s homelessness crisis.

Amid all the different, increasingly desperate proposals to lessen the homelessness crisis, it's worth noting that only a few of those have been unanimously opposed by those in and who work with the homeless community the most. As of now, no shelter providers or unhoused Portlanders have publicly supported Wheeler's plan.

If city leaders are serious about taking bold steps to address homelessness, they should look to the solutions that have been tested and endorsed by Portlanders with proven expertise and lived experience.