PITCHING CAMPSAdvocates for the homeless say tent cities would relieve Portland’s growing outdoor sleeping problem
By Anna Griffin, The Oregonian
On any given morning over the past few weeks, sunrise along the west bank of the Willamette River meant Mother Nature’s wake-up call for dozens of homeless people who spent the night sleeping on public property.
Some had simply unrolled a sleeping bag or folded themselves up on the park benches along Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Others parked all their worldly possessions — shopping carts, bikes, suitcases and filled-to-bursting garbage bags — in increasingly large, impromptu settlements beneath the Hawthorne, Morrison and Burnside bridges.
To a certain degree this is expected. Summer brings people who’ve been hidden, in cars and abandoned buildings or on friends’ couches, out into the sunshine. The end of the rainy season also coincides with the arrival of a different, usually younger population of homeless travelers.
But this year’s boom feels more intense, advocates and homeless people say, particularly in downtown Portland and along the Willamette’s west bank. It’s a reminder of a fundamental truth in the effort to end homelessness: Portland, like most large U.S. cities, forbids public camping but has no feasible means of consistently enforcing the ban.
It’s adding to a slow thaw in how civic leaders talk and think about a concept that would have seemed outlandish, and out of the political question, a few years ago: legalized, if limited, camping. Government-authorized tent cities.
“I know the general public doesn’t want to hear it,” said Israel Bayer, a homeless advocate and executive director of Street Roots, the alternative weekly paper sold by homeless vendors. “No, it’s not popular. No, it’s not an answer. But at some point, the gap between places to sleep and people needing them is too great. We’re overwhelmed.”
The camping ban
Camping, or in technical terms “establishing or maintaining a temporary place to live,” is illegal in Portland, along with most other Oregon communities.
As a general rule, Portland police enforce the law, and one that forbids erecting temporary structures on public property, on a complaint-driven basis unless camps grow so large or so obvious that they pose a public health or safety danger.
“Our primary complaints are about garbage and human waste,” Assistant Chief Bob Day said. “It really isn’t about the people so much as it’s about the stuff.
“We try to operate in a very restrained fashion in terms of understanding that we have almost 2,000 people outside every night, and even if all 2,000 were ready to be housed today, we couldn’t do it.”
Put more plainly: If you stay out of sight, out of trouble and away from large groups, officers usually leave you alone.
“We are not interested in the unsheltered man or woman who is sleeping in a doorway and picks up after themselves and is just looking for a safe place for the night,” said Sgt. Nate Voeller of Central Precinct’s neighborhood response team. “We know as well as anybody that people need a place to sleep and that we don’t have enough options in Portland.”
Earlier this summer officers spent three weeks working to reduce the number of people sleeping outside along the Eastbank Esplanade, on the streets near OMSI and under the Fremont Bridge’s east end. They were responding to complaints from neighbors and to camps that had grown too sprawling to control or ignore, officers said.
Homeless advocates called the effort abusive and unnecessary. Officers object to that characterization and say most people left voluntarily. Police made 896 “contacts” during the three-week operation but arrested only 12 people, six on outstanding warrants.
The problem: In the inner city, the number of places to hide is shrinking. Development in the Central Eastside Industrial District and inner Southeast, including the redevelopment of Washington High School and St. Francis Park, longtime refuges for homeless men and women, have resulted in more calls to authorities. So the crackdown on the inner eastside helps explain the apparent, anecdotal jump in the number of people sleeping in the inner westside.
“Historically, a complaint-driven system resulted in, for the most part, people being OK,” Bayer said. “The problem is a complaint-driven system when there’s really nowhere safe and secluded for people to go.”
Embracing tent cities
In the U.S., tent cities — semipermanent communities in temporary shelters — date to at least the Great Depression. Rising numbers of homeless men and women have prompted a few communities to consider them.
It’s usually a last-ditch approach, as in Phoenix, where community leaders allowed an overflowing shelter to expand into an adjacent parking lot for almost two years. Or it’s grudging: San Jose leaders, facing overwhelmed shelters and drops in federal affordable-housing money, allowed a 68-acre shantytown dubbed “the Jungle” to grow to almost 300 people, large enough that it appeared on Google Maps, before shutting it down in 2014.
In Seattle legal camping has been a small but accepted part of the approach to homelessness for more than a decade. Churches and other religious institutions were allowed to host homeless camps several years ago.
This past spring the Seattle City Council approved three new tent cities regulated by the city for as many as 100 residents each. The expansion was Mayor Ed Murray’s response to a surge in homelessness and the number of illegal camps in hard-to-miss places such as along highways and in public parks.
“The impact those illegal camps have on our community are huge in terms of public health, sometimes in terms of the general public but even more than that in terms of the safety of individuals living outside on their own without the protection of a community,” said Sola Plumacher, a Seattle Human Services Department worker who helps coordinate establishment of the new settlements. “We’re calling this an interim survival mechanism."
Seattle’s new camps will not be allowed in public parks, must be within a half-mile of a transit stop and must move at least once a year. Social service providers will run them and the city will pay as much as $200,000 annually for basic services such as trash collection and portable toilet rentals. That’s far less than the cost to build or rent and operate a traditional indoor shelter.
“Obviously we cannot stop there,” said Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, a Socialist whose election two years ago helped spur Seattle’s shift toward government-permitted tent cities.
“We have to be moving to a broader, more comprehensive solution, toward a time when people do not suffer from homelessness,” she said. “This is a way to make people’s day-to-day lives a little easier.”
A possible thawing
In Portland, advocates for the poor have pushed legalized camping for more than two decades. Those calls have grown louder in the past few years as homelessness jumped, a result of the recession and Portland’s hot rental market, which has driven up prices, driven down vacancy rates and driven out many poorer residents.
Civic leaders’ opposition to some form of legalized camping is beginning to loosen. “I think in a limited way that’s an option that has some merit,” Mayor Charlie Hales said this past spring. A committee of government officials, elected leaders and service providers studying solutions to homelessness has included tent cities in early conversations about what form more shelter space should take.
According to the Home for Everyone committee, the ultimate answer to Portland’s homeless crisis is better access to mental health care, more low-skill jobs and higher wages for existing jobs, more options for people fighting addiction and, above all else, more permanent affordable housing. But Portland also needs more emergency places for homeless people to sleep right now.
“We have an ordinance that prohibits camping. We also have upwards of 1,800 people who are going to have to sleep somewhere,” said Marc Jolin, director of the city-county A Home for Everyone initiative. “We do not have enough lawful places to sleep right now, no question. The question is how we use our resources.”
The arguments against tent cities are easy to list: They’re unattractive. They take up public space. They’re not a long-term answer for people trying to reach self-sufficiency. They can, done with little thought or placed in out-of-the-way places, look and feel less like small towns and more like internment camps for the extreme poor. In Honolulu, where the City Council has passed multiple laws aimed at criminalizing loitering and camping, Mayor Kirk Caldwell is building a small, legal homeless camp made of shipping containers at Sand Island Recreation Area, a World War II internment camp for Japanese Americans.
“The risk is that you’re just pushing homelessness out of the public eye but not actually doing anything to help homeless people,” said Eric Tars, senior attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “If you put a camp in the middle of nowhere, away from any services, the only thing they accomplish is making the people you’re trying to help feel even more ostracized and isolated.”
Arguments for tent cities are subtler: They allow residents who want to look for work or go to the doctor a place to store their belongings, and freedom from the stress of trying to find a new safe place to sleep every night. They can give social service providers, who often must search for clients, a central location to work. They offer, if well run, a safer option for women and seniors living outdoors.
“I’m of the opinion that a sheltered place to go might reduce the victimization of some of our more vulnerable unsheltered population,” Voeller said.
And they give police and policymakers more leeway to enforce anti-camping and loitering laws elsewhere in a city. It’s hard for officers to crack down on camping with lasting results when there is nowhere for them to go besides “not here.”
Portland has two legal camps. Dignity Village, in far North Portland, grew out of a protest and into a permanent government-approved city-within-a-city run by and for homeless people.
The Right 2 Dream Too rest area downtown has drawn complaints from some nearby business owners, who say it scares away out-of-town visitors. A developer recently sued the city, saying the nearby homeless camp made it impossible to find investors to convert a former low-rent motel into a youth hostel.
City leaders, after trying to fine the community out of existence, have come to accept its usefulness, if not its location. They’re negotiating with its organizers to move near the southeast end of the new Tilikum Crossing bridge. Right 2 Dream has room for 100 people and routinely turns away 100 or more on winter nights, but the potential new site isn’t big enough to solve that problem.
“Of course we need more legal camps, unless we’re suddenly going to come up with houses for everyone,” said Ibrahim Mubarak, a homeless man who helped found Dignity Village and Right 2 Dream Too. “Look at it this way: You have a two-year waiting list to get housing in this city. If you’re trying to stop doing drugs, get a handle on a mental health problem, stay away from somebody who abused you, two years is a very, very long time. “A lot of bad things can happen in two years.”