NICK FISH'S OFFICE was quick to correct me when I called to ask for details about a homelessness resolution the commissioner will present to Portland City Council on Wednesday, December 21.
I used the word "camping" when referring to a new plan by Fish that would allow homeless Portlanders to park their cars, RVs, or motor homes on the lots of any churches and nonprofits that welcomed them.
Words matter, I was reminded. The city, after all, remains mired in legal action over its current, very explicit camping ban. And, so, Fish's office has another term in mind: "overnight sleeping."
Which actually doesn't bother me all that much. Because whatever you want to call Fish's plan—and no matter how you feel about the longstanding effort to overturn the city's unjust camping ban—this is a smart way to help Portland's homeless population while working within the rules as they currently exist.
Fish is working from a template established down in Eugene—but unlike the last time he tried to push this plan a few years ago, his office has since devised a "light touch" legal approach.
Instead of rewriting city code to explicitly allow the "sleeping" sites, he's worked with the Bureau of Development Services on a different strategy: an agreement not to punish hosts for code violations related to long-term parking, so long as they follow some new rules relating to sanitation and safety.
"We'll use existing authority under city code to prioritize enforcement," explains Betsy Ames, Fish's chief of staff.
But let's be clear: The legal strategy is not the only thing that's changed since Fish first tried this end-run around the city's camping ban.
Credit ought to be heaped on Right 2 Dream Too—the homeless "rest area" (they don't like the word "camping," either) that opened at NW 4th and Burnside in October. The site has quietly and efficiently managed its 80-person site, winning the grudging respect of neighbors who wanted it gone almost as soon as it appeared.
After the camp opened, local ministers wrote Fish a letter asking him to resurrect his idea and offer some other way of helping the thousands of Portlanders who each night can't make it inside a shelter and are forced to sleep in the street. Fish promised to listen, and now he's brought his council colleagues along.
Of course, as Street Roots Director Israel Bayer notes, this is just "a step in the right direction.
"It's not a solution, and there needs to be more." What would "more" look like? Bayer points to Right 2 Dream Too. And he's right. But this may have to do for now.