IF INTERNAL plans come to life, the City of Portland could supply mobile restrooms and laundry service for its growing homeless population in coming months.
And if a request by one city bureau is approved, the city will pay for ramped-up campsite “cleanups” on par with the massive 2016 effort that saw hundreds of homeless people moved off the Springwater Corridor trail.
In total, these efforts could amount to nearly $450,000 more than what’s currently budgeted to battle Portland’s homelessness crisis—a notable allotment given Mayor Ted Wheeler’s heartburn about ever-greater sums of the city’s general fund being spent to fight the problem. They also highlight part of Wheeler’s homelessness strategy that’s gotten relatively little attention: He’s cleaning and clearing out homeless camps at an unprecedented clip, and getting serious about other means of tamping down the “livability” problems they can bring.
“Whereas we cleaned six campsites the first week I took office, this last week we cleaned 40,” Wheeler said at a press conference earlier this month (not bothering to mention that he took office during severe weather conditions, when cleanups are deprioritized). “We increased funding for posting and cleaning up camps that were impacted by public health, public safety, or environmental issues by over 350 percent in this budget.”
With that money, the city has sharply increased the contractors it hires to clean up human waste and clear out campsites—from four workers last summer to 16 today, according to internal budget documents. Weekly reports posted online list dozens of sites those contractors “clean”—a term that can mean anything from trash pickup to camper displacement.
Now Wheeler’s open to spending more.
The mayor hinted at new laundry and restroom trailers during the press conference earlier this month, saying he hoped business groups would help pitch in. A clearer picture of the proposals comes from internal documents obtained by the Mercury, as well as requests filed in anticipation of an upcoming budget adjustment, in which Portland City Council will dole out $12.3 million in surplus funds.
As part of that process, Wheeler’s office slipped in a last-minute request of $100,000 for a program dubbed “PDX Pit Stops.” Following the lead of cities like Sacramento, San Francisco, and Denver, the program would supply two three-stalled restroom trailers that would serve the Central Eastside and Lents.
The two neighborhoods include some of the highest concentrations of homeless residents in the city, but have scant access to public restrooms, according to an analysis carried out by the city’s Office of Management and Finance (OMF). That imbalance creates issues.
“The City of Portland’s One-Point-of-Contact system receives hundreds of citizen complaints a day,” reads a project proposal [PDF]. “Many of these are reports of human waste on sidewalks, in city parks and natural areas, and even on private property.”
According to the document, the cost of buying two trailers and operating them five days a week for six months is roughly $159,000—meaning Wheeler’s budget request is likely not enough on its own.
It’s also not necessarily going to be granted. Such late requests are typically a sign that a councilmember is making a project a priority, but mayoral spokesperson Michael Cox tells the Mercury the $100,000 budget ask could get crowded out by competing needs.
“We can also get creative on financing,” Cox says.
There’s even less certainty surrounding a $138,796 proposal [PDF] to purchase and operate a 10-station laundry trailer—an idea city officials say could reduce the amount of discarded clothes city crews pick up, as well as risks from hepatitis and other health hazards.
The city “spent approximately $866,957 in the fiscal year of 2017 on cleaning up property and trash left by homeless individuals in illegal campsites,” reads a proposal for a “Portland Mobile Laundry” pilot project. “It is estimated that approximately 70 percent of these cleanup costs are associated with dirty and used laundry.”
Cox cautions the idea isn’t “fully baked” yet, but according to the proposal, a laundry trailer would be available Monday through Friday from 8 am to 4 pm. Officials have also considered setting up a brick-and-mortar laundry service, or funding vouchers homeless people can use to pay for laundry.
Lastly, the OMF, which Wheeler oversees, has asked for $150,000 as part of the upcoming budget adjustment for its Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP). The money would be used on “cleanups on the scale of the 2016 Springwater Corridor cleanup” carried out by former Mayor Charlie Hales, the request says, and is needed because “a confluence of events has resulted in unanticipated growth of the homeless population and is challenging the capacity of the program to respond.”
The request warns that “service levels will be impacted” if council denies the request, but OMF says the work was already completed.
“The campsite cleanup funding is backfill for work already carried out this summer,” spokesperson Jen Clodius says, “not new work.”
A City Budget Office analysis (pg. 114) pointed out that HUCIRP was given $500,000 for cleanups in the current city budget, but has only spent something like $170,000. OMF didn’t respond to questions for clarification by the Mercury’s deadline.