With new homeless camp removal policy, some worry sweeps may follow

Civic Affairs

Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan says new ordinance is meant to create clarity around city's approach toward homelessness, get people into safe rest villages

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland City Council unanimously adopted revised homeless camp removal policies Wednesday, but some critics say they are worried the measure could lead to more sweeps.

Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan, who introduced the ordinance, said it is meant to create clarity around the city’s approach toward homelessness. He’s calling the new ordinance “Paving the Pathway from Streets to Stability”

The changes include allowing the city to remove a camp without getting approval from the individual bureau on whose property the camp is located.

When removals of camps occur at sites designated “high impact” to public safety, based on certain criteria, city workers will refer those campers to one of the six city-sanctioned safe rest villages once they are built. 

Dan Ryan fields questions via Zoom conference following his victory in Portland’s City Council special election August 12, 2020 (KOIN)

The safe rest villages will provide baseline services like sanitation, hygiene, case management, security and “dignity and stability,” according to the ordinance. Earlier this month, Ryan said he hopes to begin construction on the villages by August and start services by the end of the year. City council previously directed city bureaus to provide a list of surplus city property for use as outdoor shelters by June 30.

“This ordinance means that we will pivot from current unregulated camping and create communities where Portlanders can live in dignity with no harm to the environment. And with access to safety, hygiene, sanitation and human connection,” Ryan said.

Forced removals of “low impact” sites will no longer be prioritized under the ordinance, if they are a certain distance away from places like schools, childcare care centers, natural areas, residential buildings and business entrances. The breakdown is detailed below:

  • “Low impact” camps must be at least 150 feet away from preschools, elementary or middle schools and childcare centers.
  • 100 feet away from a high school.
  • Camp must be outside of a scenic natural area or wildfire hazard area.
  • 50 feet away from a park.
  • 10 feet away from the entrance to a residential structure or door to any business. 

The ordinance is set to be in effect and “in full force” on and after Sept. 30.

Ryan said the ordinance will give the city the regulatory tools it needs to leverage American Rescue Plan dollars to build the safe rest villages before the end of the year.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, in part to help keep expectations about the ordinance in check prior to public testimony, explained the work the city was doing to address homelessness was “still a work in progress” and won’t be fixed in one day.

“What we do today is a beginning and not an ending. And we need everybody to continue to have an all hands on deck approach. Because government will not do this alone, nonprofits will not do this alone, landowners will not do this alone. This is an all hands on deck and there is no perfect policy that is going to make every Portlander housed today,” she said.

During public testimony of the ordinance, reactions ranged from residents being concerned the new policies did not do enough to change the status quo and clean up the streets to people self-identifying as homeless raising the concern that the city should direct its resources to cleaning and maintaining existing camps.

Benjamin Donlon, an activist with the coalition Stop the Sweeps, raised the concern that he didn’t think there was enough information available to the public about just how the safe rest villages would be run. What’s more, he said it was concerning that the ordinance is set to become effective Sept. 30, while still unclear whether the safe villages would be up and operating by then.

“I can see the intentions of what they were going for, as far as define where people can be. But that also makes it troubling for people who are not in those areas, right. Which there are a lot of people,” Donlon told KOIN 6 News.

Being part of a coalition that’s against sweeps of homeless encampments, he said he’s against any camp removals, whether they’re designated as “high impact” or “low impact.” 

“On the other hand, I think it’s really good that all five of the commissioners’ officers are working together on something, as far as homelessness goes. I think that is a promising sort of thing that they are communicating about it. ‘Cause before it seemed they were all siloed in trying different things on their own,” Donlon added.

Marisa Espinoza is the Public Policy Coordinator with Northwest Pilot Project, a social service provider that gives homeless seniors housing stabilization services. July 1, 2021 (KOIN).

The Northwest Pilot Project is a social service organization that provides seniors who are homeless with housing stabilization services. Marisa Espinoza, the Public Policy Coordinator for the organization, said while she’s excited about the prospect of city-sanctioned safe villages, she has other reservations about the ordinance.

Espinoza is worried the new ordinance could lead to more displacements due to how the prioritization changes are written for the “low impact” sites.

“Although it was framed as really not intending to create a substantial increase in removals, we actually are concerned that is perhaps an incorrect estimation,” she told KOIN 6 News.

Espinoza explained that if you compare the new ordinance to a tool currently used by the city for determining whether a camp is “low impact” or “high impact,” there are incongruities that would cause a site that would otherwise be categorized as “low impact” as one that is eligible for meeting the city’s criteria for removal.

“By defining ‘low-impact’ with lower distance thresholds than what’s listed on the Risk Assessment Tool, while specifying locations not currently named, more sites could be at significantly greater risk of being removed,” Espinoza explained in her public comments to the city council.

For example, under the new ordinance, camps less than 50 feet away from any developed park would now be considered “high impact.” But under the previous criteria that the city used to define the impact level of a camp, that rule only applied to camps that were within 50 feet of a park that had a playground or sites that were literally on park property. 

The tool by which the city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program determines a camp’s impact level is called the Risk Assessment Tool Cheat Sheet, Espinoza said.

There were a number of other examples of how the new ordinance may change the criteria for what is considered “high impact,” which Espinoza worries may cause increased removals, depending on how the changes comport with the current points system.

Not only were other distance threshold criteria lowered in the new ordinance, but new locations specified that hadn’t been included before. 

“We ask council to more carefully evaluate where this and existing policy could promote negative impact. We really believe it requires more careful review. And that particular recommendation is not limited to the new policy, it’s the reality that I think most folks actually acknowledge within the city, that the tool that was used by HUCIRP — in recent months and earlier — is in need for an update,” Espinoza said.

She added such an update to the risk assessment tool should involve broad stakeholder input, including from social service providers.  

Espinoza said the impact of removing campers — commonly called “sweeps” — makes it more difficult for social service providers to do their job because homeless people often lose incredibly vital documents when the sweeps occur, become dislocated and displace, and experience a disruption to their usual support networks.

“We think that more time should be spent on this and that there should be much more transparency around what sites are being prioritized for removal.”

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