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PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, along with Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, has proposed the largest and most expansive plan yet to address homelessness in the city.

The proposal has drawn responses across the board, including praise from some in the business community, and condemnation from some service providers. At the heart of the multi-faceted plan: The proposal to build, and sanction, six homeless camps, each large enough for 250 residents, to be built somewhere in the city.

The Tribune posed several questions about the camp sites to Wheeler, who responded the week before Christmas in writing. The following answers have only been lightly edited for style.

Tribune: Where will these camps be built?

Wheeler: We are in active conversations with numerous property owners to come to an agreement on site locations. Locations will be announced in the near future.

Tribune: You’re going to run into very, very heavy neighborhood opposition, if they’re in a neighborhood. What is the plan to counter that?

Wheeler: We’ve held numerous community meetings with the public to engage with neighborhoods to hear their concerns, ideas and input. We started these town halls by extending an open invitation to anyone in the community that would like to attend. Hundreds showed up. Opening question was “Imagine one of these designated camping sites was in your neighborhood. What services and precautions would need to be implemented for these to work?”

Camps will be in areas across the city so no single area will be solely impacted. There will be continued community engagement once camps are up and running.

Tribune: What is the city’s plan to get the county, Metro and state to pony up?

Wheeler: We have 800 self-sited, unsanctioned campsites across 146 square miles of Portland. This is a public health emergency where we are working to get those experiencing outdoor homelessness with a very high percentage dealing with untreated mental health and substance abuse closer to services.

We have made clear asks to our government partners to support specific funding requests and services needed to help ensure this plan is successful:

  • Multnomah County to delay their budget vote this week and to agree to a joint 30-day financial review of the (the Joint Office of Homeless Services) and city. Also provide $21 million to fund the capital and operations costs for 3 of the 6 sanctioned sites, behavioral and mental health resources, data, and housing navigation. The County has over $33 million in both over collected and underspent resources through both the Joint Office of Homeless Services and the region’s Supportive Housing Services funding provided to the County. (See sidebar)
  • Metro to lead a process in 2023 to revisit the regional Supportive Housing Services measure allocation formula for both existing funding allocations and managing unanticipated revenue collections.
  • State of Oregon to declare a State of Emergency on Homelessness and assist in establishing these sanctioned sites. In addition, we ask for the state’s support of the Oregon Mayor’s Association Taskforce on Homelessness’ request for a budget package totaling $123 million ongoing annually, during the 2023 Legislative Session to provide direct allocations to cities for homelessness response and prevention services.
  • Mayor Wheeler and his team regularly meet with (then) Chair-elect Vega-Pederson and Gov.-elect Kotek to discuss housing, homelessness, and behavioral health.

Tribune: Will the new rule of forbidding street camping pass legal muster? Efforts to do so in the past haven’t.

Wheeler: These programs are being developed based on the input from our City Attorney.

Tribune: If a person won’t leave the sidewalk, which municipal employee will make them move? A police officer?

Wheeler: We’re hiring 50 new outreach and navigation workers to better connect homeless Portlanders to shelter and other services.

We’ll continue the current practice used by outreach teams: when an individual refuses to move, they can take their personal belongings with them (we’ll store their additional items free of charge). We find that the vast majority of people move. We are also looking to further develop diversion opportunities to incentivize homeless Portlanders who may not otherwise want to engage with outreach workers an opportunity to get off the streets.

Tribune: A study by ECONorthwest says, if we get serious about ramping up production of affordable housing, it will still take 20 years to build enough homes to solve the homelessness crisis. Are these intended to be 20-year camps? And if so, what would they look like on their 20th anniversary?

Wheeler: These designated campuses are designed to more effectively connect existing services to those experiencing outdoor homelessness and other issues. At the same time, I am continuing to lobby State, metro, and the county to help us continue this effort.