AS THE CITY loses ground in its long battle with homelessness, Mayor Charlie Hales' office is looking to The Wire for inspiration.
Hales and other officials on August 20 announced a project advocates say has been sorely needed in the city for years: two new outposts—one on each side of the Willamette River—where members of Portland's growing homeless population can store their things during the day.
It's not a new idea. Portland's funded similar short-term storage in the past, and cities like San Diego and Vancouver, BC, have well-regarded systems for letting houseless people keep their valuables safe from theft or confiscation while they look for work or housing. Yet it was from the now-classic HBO police drama that Hales' staff pulled its latest proposal.
"What I had in my head as we were conceiving all this was Hamsterdam," says Josh Alpert, the mayor's chief of staff and point person on homelessness.
At first blush, it's a dicey comparison. "Hamsterdam," in the world of The Wire, was a cluster of abandoned Baltimore row houses where police allowed chaotic drug activity to carry on unabated—driving down crime in other parts of the city and giving social services easy access to people in need.
"Not the drug use," Alpert clarifies. "If we have services we know people will want, they will come there. These will get filled every day, immediately."
Pretty much everyone agrees day storage is overdue at a time when Portland's losing the fight against homelessness. A count earlier this year—an imperfect instrument that is nonetheless the best tool the city has—found the number of homeless people had risen roughly four percent since 2013. The count carried out in 2013 found a 10 percent increase over 2011.
All told, the best guess is there are nearly 2,000 people sleeping outside on any given night in Multnomah County.
"We could do almost unlimited storage," says Tony Bernal, development director at Transitions Projects, one of the city's leading housing providers for the destitute. "These are people's belongings, the only things they have, and they've got no security for it."
What little temporary storage exists for Portland's homeless is laughably insufficient. Transitions Projects has 100 lockers at its day center in Old Town's Bud Clark Commons, provided since the building opened in 2011. Those lockers have been full since day one, meaning people are constantly being turned away.
A center operated by the homeless outreach organization JOIN in Northeast Portland has 50 lockers. They're also constantly full, says Executive Director Shannon Singleton.
The new proposal—a six-month pilot project that might be ending, conveniently, right around the time the mayor's making his strongest pitch for re-election—will nearly double the capacity at those two centers. Alpert says the city's wrangling two shipping containers that will accommodate up to 65 people's belongings apiece, and sit beneath the Burnside Bridge and somewhere in the Central Eastside.
Beginning in October, the plan will allow people to drop off their things from 6 am to 7:30 am, and pick them back up between 4:30 pm and 6 pm. (Items that aren't collected, worryingly, would be sent to the same remote storage space off SW Barbur where items swept up in campsite cleanups are kept.)
"Watching belongings hinders people's ability to go to work, look for a job, go to medical appointments, or do other things during the day," reads a handout the mayor's office gave to media.
The Hamsterdam comparison revolves around the amenities Hales says will be available once the storage attracts people. The city's planning lighted restrooms, trash disposal, containers for used needles, and "information kiosks" with details on available social services.
The city says the program will cost roughly $84,000 to run for six months. The mayor's office hasn't identified ongoing funding for the storage—or another newly announced plan that will spend nearly $1 million trying to get 50 of the city's most entrenched campers into housing—so there's no telling if this is going to be a flight of fancy.
Hales' announcement last week was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and skepticism—the former from people who work closely with the homeless, the latter from people who want the city to focus its resources on affordable housing. After all, while they may be needed, Portland's Little Hamsterdams are likely to offer cosmetic fixes more than actual progress.
"It's something that's very important and will be used," says JOIN's Singleton, "but it's also not going to end anybody's homelessness. We need immediate solutions, but we also need housing."