ON MONDAY, Mayor Charlie Hales' office unveiled a series of proposals more dramatic than anything Portland's seen since declaring a housing emergency in September.
Upending years of using blanket sweeps as a strategy for fending off visible homelessness (a hammer Hales was happy to wield earlier in his tenure), the mayor's office is now pushing sanctioned camping on city land.
The olive branch comes in several forms—in organized encampments, which the mayor will furnish with special "pods," in tents allowed on some city property as long as they're taken down in the morning, and in small groups formally allowed to sleep under tarps on city sidewalks.
It's hard to overstate what a change this is in a city that has fought, repeatedly and forcefully, the idea that it shouldn't criminalize people for sleeping outdoors (an argument officials won again just last year). Monica Goracke, the lead attorney with the Oregon Law Center's Portland office and a legal advocate for the homeless, called Hales' plan "the most comprehensive, progressive, and deeply rational proposal that has ever come from city hall on this issue."
Lots of advocates agree. And, of course, a hell of a lot of people don't.
As I write this, some Portlanders will be sitting, red-faced, pouring invective into online comment sections about how Hales wants to turn the city into a Rio de Janeiro slum. Even more will offer a shortsighted argument often raised when sanctioned camping is brought up: that it doesn't fix things.
"The Overlook Neighborhood Association continues to believe that camping is not the answer to Portland's homeless challenges," Chris Trejbal, a board member with that association, wrote recently on Blogtown.
Here's some news: No one thinks that camping is the answer to Portland's homelessness. Who suggested it is?
The fact is, Portland has more than 1,800 people living unsheltered on any given night. That's according to the best metric we have, which is probably an undercount. You know what Portland doesn't have? Enough shelter space and open housing to get all those people indoors.
The region is working toward fixing that. We've detailed the plan in these very pages ["Cutting Homelessness in Half," Feature, Nov 18, 2015]. It involves huge investments in shelter, housing, and rental assistance, among other detailed suggestions. Will it work? No one knows, but to the extent that there's any "answer to Portland's homelessness challenges" being floated these days, that's it.
In the meantime, there are those 1,800 unsheltered people who haven't gone away despite years upon years of blanket sweeps, and who—guess what—have to sleep somewhere.
Hales' experiment doesn't get rid of sweeps. If anything, it will result in an uptick in enforcement as police and city bureaus establish the new expectations, and crack down on the most problematic camps.
But it also offers some semblance of order for hundreds of people caught up in the chaos of houselessness—a sense that, as Portland pursues actual, meaningful solutions, they have a place they can go.