By SARA CLINE – Associated Press/Report for America
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Makeshift shelters border busy roads, tent cities line sidewalks, tarps cover broken-down cars and sleeping bags are stowed in shop doors. The reality of the homeless crisis in Oregon’s largest city cannot be denied.
“I’d be an idiot if I sat here and told you things are better today than they were five years ago when it comes to homelessness,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said recently. “People in this town are not stupid. You can open your eyes.”
As COVID-19 took hold in the US, people on the streets were largely left to their own devices — and many cities halted clean-ups of homeless camps on orders from federal health officials. The lack of remedial action has resulted in a situation spiraling out of control in many places, calling for action by frustrated residents, while extreme forms of poverty play out on city streets.
Wheeler has now used emergency powers to ban camping along certain roads and says homelessness is the “most important issue facing our community, without exception”.
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In liberal cities across the country — where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated — leaders are increasingly removing camps and pushing for other tough measures to tackle homelessness that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
In Seattle, new mayor Bruce Harrell ran on a platform that called for anti-encampment measures and focused on high-visibility tent cities in his first months in office. Two blocks’ worth of tents and belongings were removed across from City Hall on Wednesday. The eviction marked the end of a two-and-a-half week standoff between the mayor and activists who occupied the camp and worked in shifts to prevent the homeless from being relocated.
In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a pilot program this summer to permanently evict several homeless camps. In December, the initiative was put to a critical test when lawmakers voted on a bill that would ban deforestation until April. It failed with 5:7.
In California, home to more than 160,000 homeless people, cities are reshaping the way they deal with the crisis. The Los Angeles City Council used new legislation to ban camping in 54 locations. LA mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino has unveiled plans for a ballot measure that would ban people from sleeping outdoors in public spaces if they’ve turned down offers of shelter.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed in December declared a state of emergency in the crime-ridden Tenderloin neighborhood, which has been a zero for drug trafficking, drug overdose deaths and homelessness. She said it was time to get aggressive and be “less tolerant of all the cops — that destroyed our town.”
In Sacramento in November, voters can vote on several proposed ballot measures related to homelessness — including a ban on storing “hazardous waste” like needles and feces on public and private property and asking the city to create thousands of emergency shelters. City officials in the area are feeling increasing pressure to break liberal conventions, including from a conservation group demanding that 750 people camping along a 37-kilometer natural corridor of the American River Parkway be removed from the area.
Advocates for the homeless have denounced aggressive measures, saying the problem is being treated as a nuisance or an opportunity for cheap political gain, rather than a humanitarian crisis.
Donald H. Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said at least 65 U.S. cities are criminalizing or sweeping encampments. “Anywhere that has a lot of homeless people, we started to see that as their reaction.”
Portland’s homeless crisis has become increasingly evident in recent years. During the area’s 2019 point-in-time census — a type of annual census — an estimated 4,015 people were homeless, half of whom were “unsheltered” or sleeping outside. Proponents say the numbers are likely to have increased significantly.
Last month, Wheeler used his emergency powers to ban camping on the sides of “high-crash” streets — which cover about 8% of the city’s total area. The decision followed a report showing that 19 of 27 pedestrians killed by cars in Portland last year were homeless. People in at least 10 camps have been given 72 hours to leave.
“It was made very clear that people are dying,” Wheeler said. “So I’m approaching this out of a sense of urgency.”
Wheeler’s top aide — Sam Adams, a former Portland mayor — has also outlined a controversial plan that would force up to 3,000 homeless people into massive shelters manned by members of the Oregon National Guard. Proponents say the move, which represents a major shift in tone and policy, would ultimately criminalize homelessness.
“I understand my suggestions are big ideas,” Adams wrote. “Our previous work, including mine, has… not produced the desired results.”
Oregon’s Democratic governor opposed the idea. But Adams says if liberal cities don’t take drastic action, electoral policies that target homelessness could emerge instead.
This is what happened in leftist Austin, Texas. Last year voters there reinstated a ban that punishes those camping downtown and near the University of Texas, in addition to making it a crime to solicit money in certain areas and at certain times.
People working with the homeless are urging mayors to find long-term solutions — like permanent shelters and tackling root causes like addiction and affordability — rather than temporary ones, which they say will further traumatize and vilify a vulnerable population.
The pandemic has added complications, with homeless-related complaints skyrocketing in places like Portland, where the number of campgrounds removed each week fell from 50 to five in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The situation has impacted businesses and events, with employers routinely asking officials to do more. Some are looking to relocate, others have already done so — notably Oregon’s largest annual golf tournament, the LPGA Tour’s Portland Classic, which was relocated from Portland last year due to safety concerns related to a nearby homeless camp.
James Darwin “Dar” Crammond, director of the downtown Oregon Water Science Center building, told the city council about his experiences working in an area full of camps.
Crammond said the biggest security concerns four years ago were vandalism and occasional car break-ins. Now employees are often confronted with “crazy” people and forced to avoid discarded needles, he said.
Although the US Geological Survey department has spent $300,000 on safety and implemented a buddy system to allow workers to stay outdoors safely, the US Geological Survey department is planning a move.
“I don’t blame the campers. There are a few other housing options. There is a plague of meth and opiates and a world that offers them no hope and little help,” Crammond said. “In my view, the blame lies squarely with the city of Portland.”
In New York City, where a homeless man is accused of shoving a woman to her death in front of a subway train in January, Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to discourage people from sleeping on trains or staying on the same lines all night to drive.
Adams has likened homelessness to a “cancer,” which proponents describe as a negative and inaccurate narrative that denigrates the populace.
“Talk to someone on the street and literally just hear a little bit about their stories — I mean, honestly, homelessness can happen to any of us,” said Laura Recko, associate director of external communications at Central City Concern in Portland.
And some are wondering if the tougher approach is legal — citing the federal court’s 2018 decision known as Martin v. City of Boise, Idaho, that said cities cannot make it illegal for people to sleep or rest outside without to provide sufficient indoor alternatives.
Whitehead of the National Coalition for the Homeless thought the landmark ruling would force elected officials to start developing long-term solutions and create enough shelters for emergencies. Instead, some areas are ignoring the decision or finding ways to circumvent it, he said.
“If cities get as creative with solutions as they do with criminalization, then we could end homelessness tomorrow,” he said.
Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover topics.
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