“Why Portland?” I want to know. According to him and the posse of other street kids flanking him, it’s easy to live on the streets in Portland. And, among the road-warrior community beyond our city of roses, that’s how we’re known. Easy.
He says it’s easy to score all the free drugs you want here. It’s easy to find a meal, thanks to the countless agencies that serve food and stop by with sandwiches and the like. Finding a place to sleep—that’s a little a trickier, but not too tough.
My conversations with this youth happen to coincide with a report that the City is looking at ways to make it possible for homeless people to camp in city-owned property, on public right-of-ways and on certain church properties.
“Are we making it too easy?” I wonder. The answer to that question is not a simple one—a fact I learn after speaking with other homeless people in Portland and many others working on this issue.
Northwest DistrictCause and Effect
If you’ve lived in Portland for any stretch of time, you are well aware we have a shortage of overnight shelter space, transitional lodging and affordable housing. It’s likely you’ve witnessed the fallout on the streets around you.
The City’s last one-night count on January 28, 2009 reported nearly 1,600 people sleeping on our streets—an 11 percent increase over the 2007 count. A separate count showed that nearly 35 percent of these people were reported to have mental illness.
Other estimates claim 4,000 individuals sleep on Portland-area streets. Either way, the gap is wide: The city only has 665 beds available for homeless people year-round.
Given the continued recession, it’s likely there are even more homeless people sleeping on our streets today. And because of Portland’s anti-camping ordinance, most of these people are breaking the law. Homeless advocacy groups want to change this.
…The City of Portland’s policies and practices, as applied to these individuals, violate their constitutional rights to travel, to freedom of movement, and to equal protection secured by the Fourteenth Amendment and to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment secured by the Eighth Amendment..
In the year and a half since the lawsuit was filed, it seems little progress has been made toward a settlement, negotiation or solution. That’s not to say valiant efforts haven’t been made to address the issue. They have. Thus the impetus for the content that follows: a podium for many of those who have been working toward resolving this issue.
The Oregon Law Center
Monica Goracke, Staff Attorney
The Oregon Law Center has defended the constitutional rights of homeless people for years. This has included following up on numerous complaints about how the City has treated homeless campers. According to Monica Goracke, attempts were made to address these complaints with the City. When they failed, Goracke filed the lawsuit.
The suit states:
Sleeping has been recognized by multiple courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as a life-sustaining act that is fundamental to human existence. Punishing homeless people for sleeping outside is placing the burden of the lack of sufficient housing squarely on the shoulders of those who can do the least to remedy the problem.
According to the Oregon Law Center, there’s more at play than the availability of shelter space and private housing. That’s because many homeless people don’t have access to these options due to their eviction history, criminal background, lack of income, disability, mental illness, addiction issues or pet ownership.
The City should not make it illegal to camp when there aren’t other options. People may think there are other options, but these plaintiffs haven’t been able to find shelter. Every human being has to sleep.
I don’t think my clients feel camping is a great option for them; it’s one of many bad options. The City has some good evidence that emergency shelter isn’t the best answer to homelessness either. To me, the right outcome is a combination of things. Maybe we should have limited camping, in limited places, so people aren’t forced to violate the law. We should have a wider range of options around affordable housing.
Homeless people are human beings and their circumstances could be any of ours.
Commissioner Fish’s Office
Daniel Ledezma, Policy Director
In 2004, Commissioner Sten’s office rolled out the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness: an effort to move homeless people into permanent housing. Six years later, an increasing number of people find themselves homeless as the Plan has been constrained by side effects of a depressed economy.
Daniel Ledezma says:
We see the current homelessness situation as a disgrace. We don’t see camping as an end to it. But, we just don’t have the capacity to house everyone.
We know camping is happening, so we have decided to try to acknowledge it and regulate it with guidelines that address safety and sanitation, while reducing the concentration and numbers of campers. The guidelines set some uniform expectations on behalf of campers and the police. Campers who are being responsible will get a full night’s sleep. Businesses will know they don’t have to wait until there are 50 people under a bridge for the police to act.
The camping guidelines are proposed as a pilot program to test for six months. They will not change the existing law, but instead clarify enforcement. The guidelines outline several rules, including:
- A camp may not contain more than eight people and four structures after 10 p.m.
- A camp must be out of sight and earshot or more than 50 yards away from any other camp. No more than one camp per city block is permitted.
- Campers may not set up a campsite until 9 p.m.
- A camp must be quiet after 10 p.m. Noise level must not interfere with a neighbor’s reasonable expectation of quiet.
- A camp must be clean. Trash and debris must be cleaned up by campers, including human waste.
- Behavior of campers must be law abiding.
- A camp must be packed up and removed from the site by 7 a.m.
- A camp must be off the sidewalks and roadways and away from nighttime high-volume traffic areas.
Revised in march this year, the guidelines are still out for feedback from other stakeholders in the community, including the Portland Police Bureau.
We aren’t green lighting camping. We know it’s happening. We don’t have shelter capacity. And, we’re being sued. So, why not take a proactive step to do some problem solving in a way that isn’t permanent? The Council does not want to settle the lawsuit because the City would be required to implement a permanent solution and we don’t know whether this pilot program will be successful.
People need to know there are bigger forces at play. We want to work with all sides to come up with a long-term solution. Camping isn’t a long-term solution.
The City has data that shows that with a few thousand dollars of short-term rental assistance, they can prevent homelessness for an individual. Once someone’s transitioned to permanent housing, there’s a 75 percent chance they’ll still be in their home a year after they’ve stopped receiving funding.
We know there are effective ways to solve this issue. But, the recession is impacting everything. So are the breakdown of the mental health system, the 8-year disinvestment in affordable housing and the shutdown of the capital markets. Portland did not create this problem.
We are still working on facets of the 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, trying to couple it with affordable housing, supportive services and funding for rental assistance. The Resource Access Center (RAC) is due to open in May 2011. There are a lot of really good things that are happening. In the first five years of the 10-Year Plan, we moved 7,000 people from the streets into homes.
Marc Jolin, Executive Director
Since 1992, JOIN has been working to transition homeless individuals and families into permanent housing. Marc Jolin and his staff face the homeless camping issue every day, listening to campers’ concerns about getting a good night’s sleep and fielding complaints from neighborhood associations, businesses and the police about people having to live their private lives in public spaces.
Marc Jolin clarifies:
We’ve been grappling with this challenge for 15-20 years, but this is the first time we’ve really opened the door to a policy change. We all have a significant stake in getting it right. People have a lot of anxiety on all sides, so we have to take the time to create something that has a chance to succeed.
For the immediate future, I hope everyone stays engaged in the conversation and believes it’s possible to come up with some guidelines that can improve on the situation we have right now. It’s a difficult process and there are plenty of temptations to walk away thinking it can’t be done. But, Commissioner Fish’s office has continued to be engaged. We’re at a point of progress without being distracted from the real goal: to not be in a situation where people are having to live on the streets.
As a long-term goal, even if we had enough shelter, there would still be people who chose to sleep outside over sleeping in a shelter. But, they would not choose to sleep on the streets over having a home of their own. If we can offer someone the support they need to get off the street and make it stick, they open up quickly to the idea and will work hard to make it happen. People lose years off their lives living outside.
Portland Business Alliance (PBA)
Megan Doern, Vice President of Communications & Programming
Mike Kuykendall, Vice President of Central City & Downtown Services
PBA members fund the Clean & Safe Program, which contracts with Central City Concern to keep 213 downtown blocks clean. Last year, they removed 22,000 graffiti tags. The program also employs private security guards through Portland Patrol, Inc. who respond to complaints about homeless people on private property.
Speaking on behalf of Mike Kuykendall, Megan Doern talked to me about PBA’s position on the camping issue:
We don’t think that allowing people to camp, especially in the rainy, cold months, away from services and treatment options, will benefit the homeless community. Is it really a humane thing to have people out in the rain? We think we can do better to help people transition to affordable housing.
We believe there are other creative funding and temporary shelter ideas we can talk about. We’re Portland. We can come up with some really great ideas.
Israel Bayer, Director
The Street Roots newspaper has been addressing homelessness and poverty since 1998. Over 70 vendors buy and resell the paper throughout Portland and Vancouver, using the proceeds to support their basic needs. Many of these vendors are homeless, experiencing the City’s anti-camping ordinance first-hand.
Israel Bayer has reported on the camping issue and provided input as the discussion has meandered. He says:
We are watching everything closely and trying to come up with some out-of-the box experiments to solve a problem that’s been a quagmire for two decades. Since the sands are shifting as we speak, we really can’t say whether we’re for or against the camping guidelines that have been proposed.
I’ve seen the smartest people in the city work on this and walk away completely frustrated.
I hope that we can come up with a safe and humane approach to people being able to sleep outdoors—one that also respects all parties. I hope we can let these people have a good night’s sleep without affecting the everyday activities of our businesses and neighborhoods.
I spoke with a couple of Street Roots’ vendors who are homeless, sleeping on the streets. One of them has had permission to sleep in the doorway of a business in Old Town for over two years. He explains:
I get done selling papers at 9 p.m. every day. Even if I wanted a bed in a shelter, I couldn’t get in at that hour. I don’t want to sleep in a shelter though; the last time I did, I caught TB.
I don’t drink or do drugs. I keep my space clean and mind my own business. The Portland Police rarely bother me. It’s more common that a security guard from the Clean and Safe Program will try to clear us and our belongings off the streets.
Portland Police Bureau, Central Precinct
Commander Dave Famous
Captain Mark Kruger
Quite frankly, between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., if people aren’t being disruptive or generating complaints, we let them sleep. But, at 7 a.m., we do want them to pack up and move on. At that time, we’ll provide them with social services information. Many of our officers have been on a particular beat for some time, so they build relationships with the homeless people. It helps diffuse situations at times.
We’re looking for a holistic approach to manage the proposed camping guidelines. It might be helpful to have other community partners come with us, like outreach workers.
Commander Famous referred me to Captain Kruger to set up a ride-along to some of the current camping hotspots, including under the Burnside, Morrison, Steel and Fremont Bridges. Captain Kruger says he doesn’t see many people who have been displaced by the economy. “Those people want to take advantage of social services,” he explains. “What I see are chronic folks who don’t want services: the mentally ill, substance abusers, people with criminal records and the transient, road warriors.”
Captain Kruger continues:
We seldom have to arrest people. 90% of the time, people leave and don’t come back after the first sweep and clean-up.
We try to look at the totality of the circumstances. And, we have to balance our enforcement with our other responsibilities. We try to focus on situations generating complaints or threats to public safety.
The proposed pilot program guidelines will make it tough for us. Who’s going to go out at 7 a.m. every day and clear out the camping sites? Our office on the east side already spends about 30% of its time on camping issues. We are facing a lack of resources and this will add a lot of additional responsibility. Of course, if all campers were responsible it would be easier.
For a copy of the current Homeless Camping Guidelines, visit Commissioner Fish’s Camping web page at http://www.portlandonline.com/fish/index.cfm?c=52512
To read the current anti-camping ordinance, visit http://www.portlandonline.com/auditor/index.cfm?c=28513&a=15427