PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has ambitious plans to deal with the city’s homeless problem. In a sit-down interview with KOIN 6 News, Wheeler discussed the plans, addressed his critics and said his working relationship with the previous Multnomah County Chair was contentious.

His plan to construct 6 large scale campsites with housing pods, each site able to accommodate at least 150 people and provide food, showers and safety plus services including behavioral health, has plenty of supporters — and a vocal chorus of critics.

“The politicization of this issue is really, quite frankly, it’s disgusting to me,” Wheeler told KOIN 6 News earlier in May 2023. “I was shocked how many people came out and opposed the temporary alternative shelter sites by calling them ‘concentration camps,’ ‘internment camps with warehousing,’ ‘forced encampments.’ In other words, people who should have known better weren’t even willing to try something different.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, May 11, 2023 (KOIN)
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, May 11, 2023 (KOIN)

This plan may be something different for Portland but it’s been working in other cities, including San Diego.

There, a 400-bed bridge shelter run by Alpha Project is just one of several bridge shelters operating in San Diego with the goal of getting vulnerable people off the streets now while waiting for permanent housing.

Drew Moser, the executive director of Lucky Duck Foundation, the non-profit behind the transitional shelters in San Diego, said permanent housing is costly and long-term.

“It’s like telling people on a sinking ship, ‘Wait 3 to 20 years until we can build you the life boats,'” Moser told KOIN 6 News in 2022. “We are about immediate pathways off the street that are humane, compassionate and cost-effective.”

It’s a similar model to what Wheeler is now pushing for Portland — and something he’s wanted to do for a while.

“Look to the past,” he said. “For almost a decade Multnomah County leaders insisted most homeless dollars be spent on permanent housing instead of large scale transitional shelters.”

The mayor said he had “a strong disagreement” with the prior county chair, Deborah Kafoury.

Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler in an undated file photo (KOIN)

“She had her reasonings for believing what she believed, but I believe that we had an immediate crisis situation on our streets that was drug-fueled, that was behavioral health-fueled, that was public health-fueled that required immediate intervention, emergency shelter, alternative campsite programs like the alternative shelter sites,” Wheeler said.

“I didn’t see that as being in conflict with affordable housing. I saw them as being necessary, precursor services that a lot of people must receive in order to be ready for affordable housing when that housing comes online.”

There is now a new Multnomah County chair, Jessica Vega Pederson, and a new governor, Tina Kotek. Both support Mayor Wheeler’s plan. The first alternative campsite is set to be built on property near Southeast Powell and Gideon.

Once all the sites are up and operating, Wheeler said he will enforce no camping laws.

“Trespassing rules need to be enforced. At the end of the day we should offer people humane, workable alternatives at the scale necessary to be able to address the magnitude of the problem on our streets,” he said. “We should do those things because we are a compassionate society, but on the other hand we can’t just give people carte blanche to set up tents sites where they want.”

Three years ago, KOIN 6 News asked the mayor where the citizens of Portland draw the line between compassion and tolerance. He said his answer now is the same as it was then.

“There is a fine line between helping somebody and enabling somebody,” Wheeler told KOIN 6 News in May 2023. “I believe that over a period of years this tolerance for people being able to live wherever they want anywhere in the city of Portland — including very dangerous and squalid conditions — was not compassionate.”

He added, “What I’m trying to do is get people out of a situation where last year nearly 200 of them died on the streets.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, May 11, 2023 (KOIN)
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, May 11, 2023 (KOIN)

There is both plenty of optimism and pushback about Mayor Wheeler’s alternative campsites. But can anyone honestly say doing nothing, pursuing policies that lack urgency, keeping the status quo, is working to solve what we all see on the streets?

“What I would ask my critics to do is, since this is going to happen, let’s wait and see how it goes. Let’s see how it goes. I actually think it’s going to be successful, based on what I’ve seen around the country on which the model is based,” Wheeler said.

“Frankly, I think there’s some people who are afraid we might be successful. They’ve invested personally in our failure. So I’m more determined than ever to prove them wrong.”