PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s emergency declaration is being met with backlash from groups who work with the Safe Routes to School program, saying it politicizes the effort to promote better infrastructure near schools.
On Friday afternoon, Wheeler’s office announced the declaration, which expands on an earlier emergency declaration in February which banned camping on freeways and high traffic corridors. Friday’s announcement expands that ban to 150 feet in the proximity of a school as well as “primary investment routes” directly tied to the Safe Routes to School program. Encampments in those areas will be “prioritized” for removal.
Primary Investment Routes are sidewalks and walkways within a mile of an elementary school or middle school and a mile and a half from a high school. The Safe Routes to School Program began in 2001 in an effort to expand sidewalks, lighting, cross walks and other safety measures near schools, particularly in Title One and schools serving students from lower income families.
Sarah Iannarone, the executive director of the Street Trust, which advocates and helps establish the program, says her organization was not contacted about the declaration, nor was any other Safe Routes program she spoke with on Friday. Iannarone says the declaration has “quite a bit of upheaval for this group” particularly as the organizations prepare for the return of school.
“The fact we weren’t consulted by the mayor’s on this, while we’re trying to get our back to school programming in place, suggests that they didn’t really even look at what we’ve go going to on. The first thing you do when you’re trying to administer a policy is look at who your experts on the ground,” Iannarone said.
In the release, the mayor’s office made clear Wheeler was not available for interviews to answer questions about the emergency declaration. Multiple emails and phone calls to the mayor’s office for response and clarification Friday went unanswered.
KOIN 6 learned “most if not all” of the city council are out of the office, after the second city council meeting in as many weeks was cancelled earlier in the week.
PBOT was one of the city bureaus to implement the initial emergency declaration. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s office was informed about the mayor’s plan to expand that declaration, but her office says there was no other consultation sought by the mayor’s office.
“What this really demonstrates, I think, is a lack of a plan from the mayor’s office and what he’s going to do about the crisis of homelessness in Portland,” Iannarone said.
Throughout 2022, Wheeler has declared emergency declarations around trash, graffiti, homelessness, and gun violence.
During his budget presentation press conference, Wheeler expressed emergency declarations were his method to cut through the city’s various bureaus.
“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,” the mayor’s statement read.
Iannarone says she has not seen any best practices or evidence around banning camping near schools or on routes.
She fears the declaration will politicize Safe Routes and “vilify” the people it targets.
“I see it as largely cynical. And I see a huge shift happening in the mayor’s office where we used to care about vulnerable street users, regardless of who they are young people or house people, elder people, people living with disabilities, that we should be looking to make sure that our streets are safe for our most vulnerable street users,” Iannarone said.