by Don MacGillivray

Last fall the City of Portland announced a state of emergency regarding homelessness and a crisis due to the lack of affordable housing. The Mayor rescinded ordinances that makes sleeping on sidewalks or public property illegal.

The ban of sleeping on private property without the owners permission continues.

The state of emergency will allow the city to waive zoning codes, convert city owned buildings into temporary housing, and raise the level of awareness of a need for action.

Announced last September the emergency period will be for one year with an option to extend it for six months. Officials will measure success in helping the 3,800 homeless in Portland and expect to reduce this figure by one half in three years.

New tools are needed to address the crisis. The City, the County, and the State are working to find ways to make improvements, all the solutions take time.

The most visible and objectionable feature of homelessness is a need to sleep on sidewalks and stoops throughout downtown as homeless folk have for the last 30 years. Until there is housing available to all the people on the street this will need to continue.

The City and County don’t want the homeless sleeping willy-nilly anywhere they want so there is an attempt to sanction appropriate locations where people may sleep outside. Some of these will be in central Portland, but there are places throughout the city that may be acceptable.

Downtown may be the best place for the homeless because that is where their services are located, but it is also the most visible which disturbs the business community, their customers, and tourists.

Few neighborhoods want an incursion of the homeless either and there is much push-back when a site is found outside of downtown. Lack of restrooms and showers, places for storage and garbage make any site problematic.

To provide these functions takes additional resources both in funding and personnel. As soon as a good site becomes available, it is developed for new commercial or residential purposes.

Homelessness is partly the result of a variety of challenges and misfortunes that can happen to almost anyone. It  can be a result of childhood difficulties and a lack of will and many of the changes in our complicated modern world have negative effects.

A lack of income is the most common cause. This can develop because of a lack of employment, medical issues, substance abuse, a criminal record, lack of education and many other issues.

Lack of income and the shortage of affordable housing solutions make for an extreme challenge. Units that rent for $200-$300 a month are needed, but the lowest priced housing is generally $600 an month and above.

This suggests that someone else will pay the bill for housing people of limited means. Will it be the City, the County, the State, the Federal Government, philanthropy, or adjustments to how business is done?

We cannot build our way out of the problem because unsubsidized new housing is not affordable for many people.

The new rules for unorganized camping are only sleeping bags and/or tarps on sidewalks; tents will be allowed from 9 pm to 7 am on rights of way other than sidewalks, and no more that six people at any one location.

Organized camping requires a permitted location and an approved “camp host”.

A potential source of temporary shelter space either inside or outside are Portland’s places of worship. They are equipped with the space as well as the minimum needs of the living and thereby might fulfill their historic function of sanctuary and hospitality.

Typically some have done this in the winter due to the freezing weather. The church has to ability to offer facilities and services that an isolated site would not.

The City allows car and recreational vehicle camping when a camp host is selected and restrooms and sanitation are available when an appropriate Code of Conduct is followed.

The City announced that a Navigation Center for homeless will be opened soon on the east side of the city. About 75 people will be invited to live there with their belongings and be given expedited services to address their problems and get them into satisfactory housing. This is expected to take from three to six weeks.

In this revised system, the public can report homeless issues around the city through a single point of contact. It is part of the “Homelessness Toolkit”.

The information is collected, entered into a database, and made available to those that need to know.

Reportable situations are: overly aggressive behavior from campers, public intoxication or drug use, campsites or structures on public property, misuse or damage of public spaces or the environment, excessive trash or dumping, or questions about a situation. A serious, active situation needs a 911 call.

Reporting can be done by phone or e-mail and the city will to respond to all inquires with what actions will be taken at 503.823.4000. Ask for the homeless camping reporting desk. Direct email to reportpdx@portlandoregon.gov.

You may also go to portlandoregon.gov/campsites for an online form that can be submitted. Homeless people can find resources by calling the 211 telephone number.

The coordinating agency for renewed efforts to solve homelessness is “A Home For Everyone”, a newly-formed coalition of agencies and non-profits working together.

Significant groundwork has been laid to create solutions, but it will take time to provide the resources needed to build new affordable housing.

A lawsuit was filed by the “Safe and Livable Coalition” on April 20 by a group of Portland businesses and neighborhoods wanting to reverse the Mayor’s recent homeless initiatives regulating sleeping in public.

The lawsuit claims the City is allowing crime, public safety risks, and overall inhumane conditions to occur. The Coalition demands the City must help the homeless live in ways that are humane and promote the health and safety of everyone.

A great deal of good work has been accomplished in the last six months. Millions of dollars have recently been allocated to build 800 new affordable housing units. Three new shelters are currently in operation.

The number of temporary shelter spaces has been kept low because resources are limited and it is more important to find appropriate housing for those that need it.

Shelters are unpopular with the homeless because of the rules and restrictions. The solutions of building affordable housing and other appropriate living situations for the homeless will take time. It is not clear what can be done in the meantime and summer is almost here.