In his office's latest move to restrict homeless camping, Mayor Ted Wheeler has signed an emergency declaration to prohibit camping along an extensive network of roads that are designated walking routes to Portland schools.
"With limited resources, and heightened demand for services, we must prioritize to help ensure the safety of vulnerable populations in Portland, such as those experiencing homelessness and school-age children," wrote Wheeler in a press release Friday. Wheeler declined to be interviewed about this decision Friday, as he currently is on vacation.
Wheeler's declaration acts as an extension to a February emergency order prohibiting camping along "high crash corridors," or streets known for frequent traffic fatalities. The ordinance expands that policy and prioritizes city resources to expeditiously clear homeless encampments that exist along designated "Safe Routes to School" (SRTS)—routes identified by the city as safe walking and biking routes for students going to and from Portland schools. Over 100 Portland private and public schools are included in this program, with miles of routes identified connecting them to residential and commercial areas. Wheeler's declaration also bans camping within 150 feet of a school building.
"School-age children should be able to walk, bike, and ride buses to get to and from schools without potentially dangerous hazards as a result of encampments, including trash, tents in the right-of-way, biohazards, hypodermic needles, and more," Wheeler said.
SRTS is a program housed within the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), which was created in response to a high rate of traffic crashes occurring near schools and putting students who walk and bike to school at risk. It was not built to protect children from homeless people.
The declaration doesn't undermine city policy around homeless camp removal procedure. The ordinance advises the city's Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP) to follow city removal protocols, which requires the city give campers anywhere from 72 hours to 10 days to vacate an area before it is swept. However, the ordinance instructs HUCIRP to prioritize clearing encampments within the SRTS network.
The ordinance also attempts to follow legal precedent laid out in a 2018 ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which prohibits cities from banning camping in public spaces if there are no alternative shelter options available. According to the declaration, the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) has agreed to make available 100 shelter beds per day for homeless campers impacted by these sweeps.
This is only the latest decision made via emergency declaration by Wheeler's office. In the past year, Wheeler has relied heavily on his ability to pass controversial policies without his fellow commissioners' consent by issuing them as emergency declarations. His fellow commissioners—all of which are also on vacation this week—were only alerted to this new declaration Wednesday evening. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who oversees PBOT, said her office was not consulted or informed about this declaration before that point. The declaration will expire on August 31 if it's not renewed by Wheeler's office.
Friday's declaration signals a shift in how Wheeler's office is talking about unhoused people.
His previous updates to homeless camping have centered on the safety and wellbeing of homeless Portlanders, whether that's preventing campers from living near biohazards or by intersections prone to frequent car crashes. Friday's declaration, however, focuses more on unhoused people being a threat to housed Portlanders.
"I am taking this additional action to help ensure the safety of school-age children, especially those in elementary and middle schools, as they travel to and from local schools," said Wheeler. "Most homeless Portlanders do not pose a risk to others—but that is not always the case—and that is why I’m taking these actions today."