The City of Portland plans to issue a permit for Hazelnut Grove, a homeless camp on public property in the Overlook Neighborhood. Before it does, it should take reasonable steps to ensure public safety and to insulate taxpayers from liability. To that end, like any landlord, the city ought to know who is living on its property.
The Overlook Neighborhood Association continues to believe that camping is not the answer to Portland’s homeless challenges. As a city, we can and must do better than telling people to struggle through a Portland winter in the outdoors.
Mayor Charlie Hales, however, believes camping is a suitable solution for the time being. City representatives and some homeless advocates have said that every neighborhood in the city should have a homeless camp modeled after Hazelnut Grove. It is therefore imperative that the city get this first one right.
The Overlook Neighborhood Association has asked the mayor’s office to incorporate several provisions into the camp permit, including keeping the size of the camp manageable, a timeline for disbanding “temporary” camps, and an expectation that campers will follow a code of conduct and all laws.
Homeless advocates working with Hazelnut Grove have deemed one other provision a nonstarter – that the city record campers’ legal name.
That is no more of a burden than the city and landlords impose on most Portlanders.
All property owners have their names and addresses listed on the city’s website. People who apply for other city permits must provide a name. And tenants in rental houses and apartments provide their names to landlords when they sign leases.
Indeed, only the most negligent landlord would rent out to people who refuse to provide their identity. Background checks are a matter of course when renting.
If there were an accident at a camp, the city could use a list of campers to determine if anyone is still missing. The Hazelnut Grove camp sits at the base of an unstable, forested slope. In the winter rains it could slide, burying tents in mud. In a dry summer, it could catch fire.
Having the legal names of campers could help social services agencies initiate and maintain contact with campers, many of whom have mental health and substance use problems that contribute to their being homeless.
A list of residents also would be useful in the event of a crime at the camp. While campers might commit to a code of conduct, humans make mistakes, and if things go badly, knowing who did what to whom will go a long way to maintaining order and accountability.
Finally, by allowing people to set up camp on city land and officially sanctioning it with a permit, the city becomes responsible for what goes on there. If someone commits a crime, and the city did not do its due diligence to ensure the public safety, a lawsuit could cost taxpayers millions.
Mayor Hales has already directed police to tread lightly around homeless camps. If they become places where anyone can go in complete anonymity without worrying that police will be checking on them, they will become attractive to the minority of homeless people who are hiding troubling pasts such as sex offenders and repeat felons. That places the majority of homeless Portlanders, as well as neighbors, at risk.
Homeless residents say that they do not want their names to become public records where people looking for them could find them or neighbors could conduct “vigilante background checks.”
That, however, is a red herring. While it is true that other landlords do not have to reveal who their tenants are, the city is not any landlord. It is a government body, too, and it is subject to Oregon public records laws.
Public records laws exist to help Oregonians hold their government accountable. Perhaps lists of homeless campers on public land should be exempt from disclosure. That is something the city and homeless advocates should take up with the Legislature. It would be odd, however, to carve out such an exemption. Government secrecy rarely serves the public well.
City officials are turning a blind eye to smaller camps and plans to sanction larger ones throughout the city. Finding out who is living in them is the most basic step to ensuring safety and accountability.