City Commissioners heard loud opposition and support Wednesday to a proposed city policy that would ban homeless camping across Portland. The seven hours of testimony, provided by more than 200 Portlanders, painted a clear picture of who stands to benefit from the plan—and who could be harmed by the ordinance as proposed.
"I can tell you again and again, camping bans come up as something politicians brandish to placate some constituents while making life unbearable for others," said Kaia Sands, director of Street Roots during Wednesday's hearing.
The proposal on the table is a package of resolutions put forward by Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the city's housing bureau. First introduced to the public Friday, the resolutions propose creating three large camping zones where up to 150 unsheltered people can set up tents without the threat of a sweep. Neither Wheeler nor Ryan have identified funding to create these camps, nor have they secured locations to house them.
According to the proposal, the creation of these camps would trigger a citywide ban on camping in public spaces—like sidewalks and parks. People who defy that ban would be required to move into a mass camp, shelter bed, or subject to criminal penalties. The proposal suggests creating a diversion program within the Multnomah County District Attorney's office—yet provides no funding to stand up what is estimated to be a costly program.
The package of resolutions include a broad call for financial support from county and state resources to expand shelter beds, mental health care and addiction services, and affordable housing for unsheltered Portlanders. It does not mention how this ask aligns with the various sources of funding already coming from regional taxes—like Metro's Supportive Housing Services fund or Portland's Housing Bond—to address these same issues.
"I am confident that these proposals will save Portlanders' lives and livelihoods, for Portlanders housed and unhoused."
Wheeler has pointed to city data showing long wait times for people trying to get into housing through Home Forward, Portland's public housing authority, and alleges that, despite having excess shelter space for Portlanders, few unsheltered individuals accept the city's offer to move into shelter. Because of this, Wheeler and Ryan agree that penalizing people who live outside is the best option.
"The magnitude of the homeless crisis in our city is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe," said Wheeler. "I am confident that these proposals will save Portlanders' lives and livelihoods, for Portlanders housed and unhoused."
In many ways, the aspirational package appears to act more like a political tool than a thought-out solution to addressing unsheltered homelessness. In their call for funding, Wheeler and Ryan have pushed candidates for Multnomah County Chair, Portland City Council, and the governor's office to support them, despite offering no concrete details on what the proposal will truly do.
"I appreciate the city’s desire to take action today," said Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who is running for county chair, Wednesday. "There are going to be tough conversations in the days ahead as there are open questions in terms of providers, locations, what this would cost and how this would be paid for."
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who is running for reelection on November 8, expressed support for part of the resolutions, yet raised concerns with the proposal's intent to criminalize unsheltered homelessness. Hardesty also pointed to the lack of mental health and substance abuse heath care practitioners in the region needed to help those living outside.
"The vision is a good one, if in fact, it was based on our current reality," said Hardesty. "I'm challenged with [the idea of] giving people sanctions... requiring them to do things that don't actually exist today."
Hardesty's challenger in the council race, attorney Rene Gonzalez, backed the entire proposal shortly after it was unveiled. Gonzalez has previously called for incarcerating homeless people who chose not to move into a shelter.
Most of the testimony heard Wednesday carried criticisms of the proposal, especially from people who have experienced unsheltered homelessness.
"You have to listen to the folks this is going to affect," said Barbie Weber, co-founder of Ground Score, a trash clean-up group that employs unhoused Portlanders. Weber lives in the Hazelnut Grove village, and identifies as unhoused. "Put yourself in our shoes: Would you want to live with another 125 people right next to you? It's not going to be safe. The crime isn't going to go away."
Raven Drake, a Street Roots employee who helped the city open and manage emergency outdoor shelters (dubbed C3PO camps) at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, said the proposal felt out of touch with the lessons learned through shelter development.
"What we learned from C3PO camps is that large encampments can be really unstable and insufficient... and no where in the resolution is services to go with these camps," said Drake. "I implore you to go back to the streets to talk to people with lived experiences and make us a part of this discussion, because so much of your plan will not work for people on the streets but so much of it could if you approached it in the right way."
Commissioners also heard from several local shelter and homeless services providers who expressed frustration that the city didn't seek their perspective before unveiling a plan to open mass outdoor camps.
"I appreciate the holistic approach and great ambition of these resolutions. But I ultimately believe they are going to fall short and they do not fully account for the root causes of homelessness."
One of those speakers was Andrew Brown, director of operations for All Good Northwest, the nonprofit organization that operates and oversees the city's remaining C3PO camps and Multnomah Village's Safe Rest Village.
"AllGood Northwest would like to express a desire to be included in any conversations about the development and operations of outdoor shelters," said Brown. "We are not seeking a service contract, we are humbly suggesting that the operators of the only city developed outdoor houseless shelter be invited to contribute. Our insights... were earned doing the work in this city and county and doing it well."
Last Friday, Wheeler alleged that no local service providers were interested in running the proposed camps. Earlier that week, representatives from the city's largest shelter providers confirmed to the Mercury that they were never asked about the proposal by Wheeler or Ryan's offices.
Wednesday's meeting gave many of them the first opportunity to provide that input.
"We want nothing more than to have additional options in term of housing, mental health, and addiction services for our community members," said Katie O'Brien, director of Rosen Haven day shelter, which serves women, children, and gender diverse people. "We support need for urgent action. Our concern lies with proposed mass shelters. For our constituents it simply isn't safe."
O'Brien explained that for the unsheltered populations Rose Haven serves, large-scale outdoor camps pose a serious safety threat. Without any details on how residents will be protected at the camps in the city's plan, O'Brien said she cannot support the proposal.
"Ensuring [safety] at this magnitude seems impossible," said O'Brien.
Andy Miller, director of Our Just Future (previously known as Human Solutions), a program that offers housing, shelter, and outreach to homeless residents living east of 82nd Ave., said the proposal "rearranges where and how people sleep outside" without investing in proven solutions to unsheltered homelessness.
"I appreciate the holistic approach and great ambition of these resolutions," said Miller. "But I ultimately believe they are going to fall short and they do not fully account for the root causes of homelessness."
Miller urged council to instead call for funding rental assistance to keep people at risk of homelessness in stable housing and services that help transition people out of shelters into permanent housing—instead of simply expanding the number of shelter beds. He also pressed commissioners to focus on converting hotels, offices, and existing residential housing into permanent affordable housing, rather than pour money into large, time-consuming construction projects.
His recommendations were echoed by several other homeless service providers, including Laura Golino de Lovato, director of the nonprofit Northwest Pilot Project.
"We work with older adults 55 and older who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, and living outside is not the best option for them, but neither is living in a large encampment," said Golino de Lovato. "We encourage the city to do more rent assistance, more hotel purchases, and create more transitional housing. We would also love the opportunity to engage with you to find solutions together."
"It's quite clear that those making money for the city are the priority voice in public testimony and it's clear that these are the folks that this proposal caters to."
Ben Kopsa, a housing case worker from the city's largest shelter provider Transition Projects, called Wheeler's characterization of the current shelter options in Portland "misleading," noting that there are usually just one or two beds empty at his 66-bed shelter on a given night—not "an excess" as Wheeler described.
"I don't believe homeless apartheid will solve the homelessness problem in Portland," Kopsa continued. "Under your proposal, some of the most vulnerable community members will be arrested for existing in public. It's quite clear that those making money for the city are the priority voice in public testimony and it's clear that these are the folks that this proposal caters to."
Kopsa was referring to a decision made by Ryan's office to prioritize public testimony of business lobbyists, realtors, and tourism groups at Wednesday's hearing, allowing 16 people from those industries to speak in favor of the camping ban before everyone else who signed up to testify using the city's online registration system. Prior to the meeting, Ryan's office requested Wheeler's staff include 16 speakers as "invited testimony" to be prioritized during public comment. Wheeler's staff then emailed an ask to the council clerk, on behalf of Ryan's office, to move those 16 speakers—representing real estate and business interests—to the top of the lengthly testimony list, following people who requested ADA accommodations.
(Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to clarify that both Ryan and Wheeler's staff were involved in allowing those 16 business and real estate speakers to cut in line ahead of other members of the public. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Ryan as the sole commissioner responsible to make this request. While Wheeler's office did not directly make this request, a public records request found that Wheeler's staff facilitated this ask to the council clerk.)
While city commissioners are allowed to start public testimony sessions with invited speakers, Ryan did not indicate that the bloc of supportive speakers had been brought in by him during the hearing.
Ryan's invited speakers shared disdain for the city's homeless population, accusing the city's poorest for impacting tourism, housing sales, and business patronage.
"Portland is on the precipice of economic decline due to the state of our streets and affordability of our region," said Michele Gila, a spokesperson for the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors.
Other realtors shared anecdotes of homebuyers deciding not to move to Portland because of homeless camps.
"I had buyers fly in from Malibu... they wanted a beautiful home in the West Hills," said Ernest Cooper, a Portland-area realtor. "Within two hours of leaving the downtown Portland core and [driving] up to the West Hills, they chose not to move to Portland at all."
Cooper suggested that this was because those buyers saw homeless people living in tents on the drive. He noted that fewer new homebuyers in Portland mean fewer property tax dollars that the city could collect to fund city services.
"Portland is on the precipice of economic decline due to the state of our streets and affordability of our region."
Support of the plan was also voiced by a number of disabled Portlanders who are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against the city for violating the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) for not clearing sidewalks of homeless tents.
"I’m cautiously optimistic toward a solution to the lack of accessibility," aid Tiana Tozer, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "It’s not okay to criminalize homelessness, but neither is it okay to trap people with disabilities in their homes. I'm here today to ask for you to provide the access that is our right under the ADA."
They weren't the only speakers to raise concerns about civil rights. Sandy Chung, director of the ACLU of Oregon, spoke out in opposition to the proposal.
"Not only is the recommendation inhumane, it is our analysis that the policy is likely unconstitutional," said Chung. "To address houselessness, city and state leaders should focus on the root causes of houselessness and real solutions that are legal and humane, especially solutions that address affordable housing access, poverty, mental illness and addiction – as many of the people testifying before council have stated today."
Several speakers went further to make a connection between the proposal for large encampments and other moments in history when marginalized populations were stripped of their civil rights by political leaders.
"Think about Myanmar, think about Darfur," said Peter Salzmann, a speaker who identified as homeless. "Are we a different kind of animal? Can we risk this?"
Kristin Teigen, an Oregon history professor at Portland State University, said she was concerned about the aspect of the proposal that suggested forcing people into camps who don't go willingly.
"When I heard of this aspect as a historian, it sounded way too familiar," said Teigen. "There was another time when people in sitting in your seat pushed to put Portland people into camps upon threat of jail. That time, leaders said they were only doing what was best for residents and told those going to the camps that all of their needs would be met. These leaders were responding to significant political pressure, like I'm sure you all are today."
"At the time this effort was thought to be entirely reasonable. Today however, when we look back on these actions, which led to the internment of Japanese Americans, we are horrified," she continued. "Forcing residents into camps, no matter the political pressure, I believe will be judged similarly."
City commissioners will hold a final vote on the package on Thursday, November 3. Commissioners have the opportunity to propose amendments to the package, which will be published online no later than Tuesday, November 2.