By Don MacGillivray
Homeless encampments have grown exponentially in Portland since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic along with public health and safety concerns.
Since March, 40 additional campsites have sprung up, each with 10 or more tents. There are an estimated 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in the Portland area often choosing to live along city streets.
Small groups of tents are often found in secluded places in the Central Eastside: around the St. Francis Dining Hall, near the Sunnyside Environmental School property and along SE Powell Blvd.
One of the larger camps is located in Laurelhurst Park along SE Oak St. between 37th Ave. and César E. Chavez Blvd. It has grown to approximately 50 tents since early spring, but the camp is generally invisible unless you traverse this section of SE Oak.
A portable toilet and one handwashing station has been provided to the campers. The park provides additional facilities and a few garbage receptacles, but crowding is the cause for many concerns.
Local volunteers from Sunnyside Methodist Church provide a lunch seven days a week and help with a variety of minor issues. Campers generally respect each other and there is often a positive sense of community among them. However, it is believed that the camp may be removed in the coming weeks.
In March, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention declared a moratorium on campsite cleanups as a way to address public health issues of the homeless community. This changed in early July when the City said that they would sweep camps larger than eight tents.
The dilemma is whether it is better to allow the camps to remain in place or to remove the residents to other unknown locations.
The COVID-19 epidemic has created havoc with the homeless situation here. Never has more attention and resources been focused on homelessness, but still it seems to have only increased over the last 35 years.
In the fall of 2015, Portland City Council, under the leadership of Mayor Charlie Hales, declared a “housing emergency.” They promised that everything possible would be done to house the homeless. Six years and two mayors later, the situation remains a significant dilemma.
This summer, three new organized camps for the homeless have opened in Portland.
Two are in the Inner Eastside along SE Water Ave. at SE Main St. Reservations are required to live in these new campsites, but they are now full.
They are fenced off and contain 12×12 foot camping sites provided with tents, cots and sleeping bags. There are bathrooms, showers and storage for personal belongings.
The camps include social distancing measures and they are regularly disinfected to provide a clean and safe living environment.
Local government has been particularly active in raising funds to address homelessness this year.
In May, voters approved a one percent tax on the wealthiest residents and largest businesses which is expected to raise $250 million a year, unless the COVID-19 economy reduces this amount.
The funds will be used for behavioral health services, job training and homeless services. People of color and the chronically homeless will be prioritized when funds become available next year.
A Metro bond was approved in 2018 a to provide $653 million to build affordable housing. Prior to that, in 2016, Portland approved a housing bond for $256 million that has built 1,300 units, but this is only a small beginning to provide the thousands of the low-income housing units our city needs.
A recent study estimated that nearly 40,000 people experience homelessness each year and another 105,000 residents are housing insecure. The COVID-19 situation could change the dynamics significantly due to a poor economy that will cause the loss of employment and rental housing.
September will be the last month of warm weather this year and by November, campers will need to prepare for winter.
Portland has expanded its shelter capacity and there are other temporary shelters that can be opened in extreme weather conditions. Nevertheless, it is not clear how all the people living on the streets can find shelter for the winter.
Photo by Don MacGillivray