Homeless solution debate heats up in Portland

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Regional push for housing prompts more options, but some are questioning proposed new city policy

FILE: Homeless campers in Portland. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The Portland City Council is expected to vote in February to clear the way for more homeless shelters, sanctioned outdoor campsites and alternative group living arrangements to be established in almost every part of Portland.

The appointed citizen Planning and Sustainability Commission already has held a briefing, two public hearings and a work session on the Shelter to Housing Continuum Project. It is intended to rewrite existing city regulations to allow such housing to be built more quickly, including where it is currently prohibited, such as in commercial zones.

The 11-member commission tentatively is scheduled to vote on its final recommendation on Tuesday, Jan. 26. Still to be debated is whether to allow some or all of the housing options in open zones and city parks.

Commissioner Chris Smith said he believes creating a wider and greater mix of housing options throughout the city will help reduce homelessness.

“My hypothesis is that clusters of individual shelters, whether they are tents, pallet shelters, tiny houses or RVs — all of which potentially fit in the ‘outdoor shelter’ zoning category — potentially offer more autonomy and fewer barriers for the houseless than congregate shelters do, and more of them may choose this option over unsanctioned camping, as it should represent an improvement in quality of life (by including) showers, toilets, laundry, garbage disposal, etc.,” Smith said.

The project is staffed by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. It is happening as the number of people living in unsanctioned campsites appears to be increasing, although no official count has been conducted since early 2019. The Portland-Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Service has asked the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for permission to delay the unsheltered portion of this year’s Point in Time Count because of COVID-19 concerns.

Despite the lack of official numbers, downtown business owners are complaining about what they say is an ongoing increase in tents on sidewalks and people sleeping in business doorways, especially in the Old Town-Chinatown area.

“The business community sadly recognizes a massive visible increase in unsheltered people on our streets,” said Portland Business Alliance president and CEO Andrew Hoan. “To suggest otherwise belies compassion. To add further to this sadness, the decision to forgo the federal HUD Point in Time Count deprives us of the only independent analysis our residents have for reliable data.”

The Overlook Neighborhood Association also recently called for the closure of “unsanctioned campsites located in parks, waterways and public paths, as well as camps where illegal activity has been documented.”

“As we begin 2021, the City of Portland must honor its promises to help homeless residents and to support neighborhoods experiencing the harmful side effects of homeless camps. The current situation is a humanitarian catastrophe. Living outdoors puts people’s health at risk and leaves them vulnerable to victimization,” the association wrote in a Jan. 5 letter to the council.

Despite the lack of an official new count, the Portland-Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services says the number of people living outdoors may have increased over the past two years, given the failure of the federal government to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, the damage it has done to the economy, and the devastating ripple effects to people living on the edge. For example, previous counts have always documented several thousand people doubled up in homes. Many of them may have been forced to move out to reduce the threat of the virus to the other residents.

“Outreach teams tell us they see more migration to places like the Central City, where there are still some active services available, such as meals,” said Denis Theriault said, spokesman for the joint office. “And they also tell us there are more people camping in more concentrated numbers, engaging in mutual aid, in a way we’ve not seen before the pandemic.

“As for whether the total number of people without shelter has grown, it’s possible given the demand we’ve seen for rent assistance and the anecdotal stories we’ve heard of people who’ve lost housing despite the various moratoriums,” Theriault said.

Project recommendations not yet final

The housing continuum project began when the planning and sustainability bureau was overseen by Mayor Ted Wheeler and is continuing under Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who was assigned it on Jan. 1. It is part of a multi-jurisdictional push to reduce the number of people living on the streets, as well as households at risk of losing their homes. Other efforts include new sanctioned campsites being opened by the joint office, and additional publicly subsidized affordable housing projects being approved by the Portland Housing Bureau and partly funded with city and Metro bond funds.

The Overlook Neighborhood Association also called for the creation of more managed outdoor shelters and homeless villages in all parts of the city modeled on the Kenton Women’s Village and the St. Johns Village in all parts of the city.

Despite its timing, the letter was not written to support the project. Association Vice Chair Chris Trejbal said the organization has not been following it. Instead, the letter was largely a response to frustrations with Hazelnut Grove, a large unsanctioned homeless camp in the neighbor that Portland officials have promised but failed to close for years. The city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program announced on Jan. 18 that Hazelnut Grove will be closed after its residents are offered the opportunity to move to the new St. Johns Village that scheduled to open in February.

Trejbal said that he does not personally believe the project will accomplish all of its goals. From what he knows of it, Trejbal said it likely will not create enough alternative housing because it will not require that such options be established in all parts of town.

“I fear that this will become one more way for the city to place all of the homeless shelters in North and East Portland while protecting wealthier neighborhoods. Homelessness is a citywide problem, and all neighborhoods should play a role in solving it, even the West Hills,” Trejbal said.

Smith said he agrees with Trejbal — even if that means using city parks if no other suitable land is available. That is one of the remaining proposal scheduled to be discussed at the commission’s Jan. 26 meeting.

“Equity demands that the benefits and burdens should be distributed. I’ve broached the unpopular idea of using parks if there are areas that would not otherwise have a reasonable supply of land. My hope is we don’t have to go there, but we need to understand the geographic distribution, which is challenging given the relatively fine-grained pattern of eligible lots,” Smith said.

But Smith also wonders how many people living in unsanctioned campsites would actually move into the new housing created by the project. During the Jan. 12 work session, he asked two panels of homeless services providers if the project will reduce the number of people living outdoors.

The answers were qualified. Some of the experts said homeless people are experiencing trauma that makes them distrustful of shelters and sanctioned campsites. Others said some people living in unsanctioned campsites are unwilling to give up their autonomy. Others said it depends on how well they would be treated at the new housing.

“What I took away is that the folks who have lived experience with homelessness seem to put more focus on autonomy than the shelter operators do, but it’s by no means black and white,” Smith said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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