LAST WEDNESDAY, a Multnomah County judge tossed a lawsuit against Mayor Charlie Hales’ homeless camping strategy—finding that the business and neighborhood interests who say it’s harmed them haven’t made their case. (They plan to re-file.)
It might have been a reason for the mayor to be heartened in the face of omnipresent outcry over homelessness in the city. Instead, Hales promptly acknowledged that the controversial camping policy has fallen short.
“It has not succeeded as we hoped—in part because the problem has overwhelmed the policy,” Hales told me two days after the judge’s decision.
Rather than a humane system where small groups of homeless Portlanders with nowhere else to go could set up for the night without fear of consequence, the mayor said that a lack of resources for enforcing the policy had too often allowed larger encampments.
Which made his announcement the same day seem quizzical. Hales’ office revealed that it’s planning to sweep hundreds of campers off the Springwater Corridor multi-use path beginning August 1, after weeks of outreach from social services agencies.
“People don’t think it’s safe to be on a community trail.... That’s not okay,” Hales said of the decision.
It’s easy to see why the mayor wants to clean up the Springwater. Since last year, tension over increased camping along the trail has led to ever-growing angst. Neighbors and homeless campers alike have experienced crime at the hands of bad actors. Rumors run rampant about plans to terrorize homeless people away from the trail.
It’s an entrenched issue that stretches from Southeast Portland into Gresham—but also one that the “safe sleep policy” that Hales is backing away from never contemplated addressing. The Springwater was always considered an entity to itself, different than smaller camps around town. That’s why City of Portland has been working with a local mediation group and other governments in order to plot a comprehensive way to address the path.
They’ve not arrived at a solution, but the city’s moving forward. And the really questionable part of the decision to sweep the Springwater is that Hales knows it’s going to lead to other problems, that it’ll push hundreds of people with nowhere better to be—in a city without enough services to address their needs—elsewhere. Wherever “elsewhere” is.
“Some of those people are going to go to shelter,” Hales said. “Some of those folks are going to camp elsewhere, and hopefully do so in a way that has less impact that what we’ve seen along the Springwater.”
“Hopefully” has rarely worked on this problem. A central reason for the “safe sleep policy,” often repeated by the mayor in the past few months, is that it is unfair to tell people “you can’t sleep here” without being able to offer another option.
That sentiment is no less true today. There’s still no other option, in many cases, and sweeping people still too frequently becomes a game of whack-a-mole.
And with a sprawling situation like the Springwater, this might be the largest version this city’s ever played.