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Cities watch as Portland allows homeless to sleep on sidewalks and camp in public spaces

May 23, 2016

Leaning back on a bench, William Wheaton had his cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes and appeared to be dozing. One hand was looped through the straps of his backpack, holding what belongings he had.

Across from him on another bench in a park in Plaza Blocks, shaded by elm and gingko trees along Southwest 4th Avenue, a man foraged through a garbage bag he’d fished out of a trash can on the corner.

“Can’t believe he’s doing that,” said the bearded and bespectacled Wheaton, sitting up and pushing back his hat. “Been watching him for half an hour.

“Hey man,” he shouts to the forager, ‘‘go to Union Gospel [a shelter]. Free hot meals. Serious.”

For most of a year since leaving Eugene, Wheaton has been living outdoors, as he puts it. He’s 50, divorced, drinks too much, and is out of work – again – he says.

But at least he’s living in the Rose City. “Guys who travel the coast,” he said of other homeless, “tell me Portland is the safest place to be.”  

That’s up for debate. Portland homeless sites have been hit by fires, stabbings and a shooting, while local business and community leaders are raising new complaints similar to those heard about the homeless in other West Coast cities – crime, garbage, noise, drug use.

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The dispute in Portland came to a head last month when seven groups banded together in a lawsuit to challenge what they call the “Mayor’s Camping Policies,” contending the measures undertaken by outgoing Mayor Charlie Hales are themselves unlawful.

Portland was slow to respond to the growing homelessness crisis, the suit claims, allowing its shelter beds to shrink from 720 at the start of the 2008 recession to 478 by 2015, and is now playing catch-up with an “irrational response.”

But the challenged policies include one innovative effort that is being watched by other West Coast cities facing homelessness emergencies. And if it works, it might prove the lawsuit wrong and establish a model for other urban hubs.

Launched by Hales in February as a six-month experiment, Portland’s “safe sleep policy” allows the homeless to bunk down on city sidewalks in groups of up to six, starting at 9 p.m. daily and packing up and leaving by 7 the next morning.

Individuals or groups – an estimated 2,000 homeless spend the nights outdoors in Portland – can pick secure, lighted areas to lay down sleeping bags and tarps with less risk of being robbed or hurt by attackers, or rousted by police, as opposed to sleeping in parks or the bushes.

Tents are also allowed under Hales’ policies, but only on city rights of way such as public parking strips.

“Since the safe sleep guidelines rolled out in February,” says Portland mayoral spokeswoman Sara Hottman, “there’s been a noticeable reduction of tents and structures on sidewalks. Complaints to the mayor’s office have shifted from complaining about the homeless in general to complaining about garbage or behavior.”

Hottman said the homeless are going along with the changes and the public is focusing on livability issues that can be resolved.

To that end, the city is providing amenities to address garbage and health challenges. They include day storage for belongings, use of Dumpsters, handing out needle containers and providing portable toilets near safe-sleep areas.  

Portland, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, has declared a homelessness emergency. That allows the city to cut red tape and seek more federal assistance. The four cities and their surrounding counties account for an estimated 70,000 homeless. The U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department says a third of America’s homeless are bedding down in California alone. The National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates almost 600,000 people sleep outside, in emergency shelters, or in transitional housing around the U.S.

So far, Portland’s homeless violence hasn’t matched the seriousness of the mass shooting at Seattle’s “Jungle” encampment. Five homeless people were shot, two fatally, by a trio of robbers in January.

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Stuck for solutions, Seattle officials this week announced they would close and remove the Jungle as an ongoing hazard. But they will have to find housing or safe spaces elsewhere for an estimated 300 campers.

For inspiration, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and several council members have visited San Francisco’s Navigation Center, an innovative and successful 75-bed facility in the Mission District that allows homeless to move in with their partners, pets and belongings. San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors is considering adding six more such facilities to house the homeless.

Seattle is also waiting to see what happens with Hale’s low-cost, safe-sleep program here.

The approach is an important part of Portland’s  homelessness action plan, which includes 575 new shelter beds. Eight hundred more beds are proposed in the mayor’s 2016-17 budget request, which would also fund organized outdoor camping on city-sanctioned sites. Another $384 million over 10 years has been dedicated to affordable housing, Hottman said.

Though Hales says his policies have proved to be “increasingly successful at balancing the needs of neighborhoods and the homeless,” the April lawsuit claims otherwise.

Susan Steward, executive director of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Oregon, the lead plaintiff, declined to comment directly but pointed to a copy of the legal complaint.

“Telling people to sleep on the streets is not humane,” the suit alleges. “In fact, it is the opposite of humane; as recent events have shown, the Mayor’s Camping Policy has resulted in violence, unhealthy conditions, and pain and suffering for our most vulnerable residents.

“Creating campgrounds throughout Portland creates health and safety risks. Perhaps the biggest problem with the Mayor’s Camping Policy is that it gives the illusion of providing a solution, while diverting attention and resources from the necessary long-term solutions that would provide safe, warm, and habitable shelter to individuals experiencing homelessness.”

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction to bar the mayor from enforcing the policies. A hearing date is not yet set.

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