PORTLAND, Ore. — Makeshift shelters adjoin busy roads, tent cities line the sidewalks, tarps cover broken down cars and sleeping bags are hidden in store doors. The reality of the homelessness crisis in Oregon’s largest city cannot be denied.
“I would be silly to sit here and tell you that things are better today than they were five years ago when it comes to homelessness,” the mayor of Portland said recently. Ted Wheeler. “People in this town are not stupid. They can open their eyes.
As COVID-19 took hold in the United States, people on the streets were largely left to fend for themselves – with many cities halting homeless camp sweeps following advice from federal health officials. The lack of remediation has led to a situation spiraling out of control in many places, with frustrated residents calling for action as extreme forms of poverty manifest themselves on city streets.
Wheeler has now used emergency powers to ban camping along certain roads and says homelessness is the “most significant issue facing our community, bar none”.
Increasingly in liberal cities across the country – where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated – leaders are removing encampments and imposing other tough measures to tackle homelessness that would have were unknown a few years ago.
In Seattle, new Mayor Bruce Harrell came out on a platform that called for action on encampments, focusing on the highly visible tent cities during his first months in office. In front of City Hall, two blocks of tents and personal effects were removed on Wednesday. The cleanup marked the end of a two-and-a-half-week standoff between the mayor and activists who occupied the camp, working in shifts to prevent the homeless from being displaced.
In Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a pilot program over the summer to permanently clean up several homeless camps. In December, the initiative was put to the test when lawmakers passed a bill banning land clearing until April. He failed 5-7.
In California, where more than 160,000 homeless people live, cities are reshaping how they deal with the crisis. The Los Angeles City Council used new laws to ban camping at 54 locations. LA mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino has outlined plans for a ballot measure that would ban people from sleeping outdoors in public spaces if they have turned down offers of shelter.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in December in the crime-ridden neighborhood of Tenderloin, which has been ground zero for drug trafficking, overdose deaths and homelessness. She said it was time to get aggressive and “less tolerant of all the bulls that destroyed our town”.
In Sacramento, voters can decide on several proposed homeless-related ballot measures in November — including banning people from storing “hazardous waste,” such as needles and feces, on public and private property. , and force the city to create thousands of shelter beds. City officials in the area are feeling growing pressure to break liberal conventions, including from a conservation group demanding that 750 people camp along a 23-mile (37-kilometer) natural corridor of the American River Parkway be removed from the area.
Homelessness advocates have denounced aggressive measures, saying the problem is being treated as a scourge or an opportunity for cheap political gain, instead of a humanitarian crisis.
Donald H. Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said at least 65 US cities criminalize or sweep encampments. “Wherever there’s a large homeless population, we’ve started to see that as their response.”
Portland’s homelessness crisis has become increasingly visible in recent years. In the area’s one-time count in 2019 – a kind of annual census – around 4,015 people were homeless, half of them “homeless” or sleeping outside. Proponents say the numbers have likely increased significantly.
Last month, Wheeler used its emergency powers to ban camping on the sides of “high impact” roads – which encompass around 8% of the city’s total area. The decision follows a report showing that 19 of 27 pedestrians killed by cars in Portland last year were homeless. People from at least 10 camps were given 72 hours to leave.
“It’s been very clear that people are dying,” Wheeler said. “So I approach this with a sense of urgency.”
Wheeler’s top adviser – Sam Adams, a former Portland mayor – also outlined a controversial plan that would force up to 3,000 homeless people into massive temporary shelters staffed by members of the Oregon National Guard. Supporters say the move, which marks a major shift in tone and policy, would end up criminalizing homelessness.
“I understand that my suggestions are great ideas,” Adams wrote. “Our work so far, mine included, has … failed to produce the desired results.”
The Democratic governor of Oregon rejected the idea. But Adams says if liberal cities don’t take drastic action, ballot measures that crack down on homelessness could emerge instead.
This is what happened in the city of Austin, Texas. Voters there last year reinstated a ban that penalizes those camping downtown and near the University of Texas, in addition to making it a crime to ask for money in some areas and at certain times.
People who work with the homeless are urging mayors to find long-term solutions – such as permanent housing and to address root causes such as addiction and affordability – instead of temporary solutions which, according to them, will further traumatize and vilify a vulnerable population.
The pandemic has added complications, with homelessness-related complaints skyrocketing in places like Portland, where the number of campsites removed each week fell from 50 to five after the COVID-19 hit.
The situation has affected businesses and events, with employers regularly asking officials to do more. Some are looking to relocate, while others have already – including Oregon’s biggest annual golf tournament, the LPGA Tour’s Portland Classic, moved from Portland last year due to security concerns. to a nearby homeless encampment.
James Darwin “Dar” Crammond, building manager of the Oregon Water Science Center downtown, told the city council about his experience working in an area populated by encampments.
Crammond said four years ago that the biggest security issues were vandalism and the occasional car break-in. Employees today are often confronted with “unbalanced” people and forced to avoid discarded needles, he said.
Despite spending $300,000 on security and setting up a buddy system so workers can be outdoors safely, the US Geological Survey division is looking to get moving.
“I don’t blame the campers. There are a few other options for accommodation. There is a scourge of meth and opiates and a world that offers them no hope and little help,” Crammond said. “In my view, where the blame lies squarely with the City of Portland.”
In New York, where a homeless man is accused of pushing a woman to death outside a subway in January, Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to start banning people from sleeping on trains or riding the same lines all night.
Adams likened homelessness to a “cancerous sore,” lending what advocates describe as a negative and inaccurate narrative that vilifies the population.
“Talk to someone on the street and literally listen to a bit of their stories – I mean, honestly, homelessness can happen to any of us,” said Laura Recko, associate director of external communications for Central City Concern in Portland.
And some question whether the tougher approach is legal — citing the 2018 federal court decision known as Martin v. City of Boise, Idaho, that cities cannot ban people from sleeping or resting outdoors without providing enough indoor alternatives.
Whitehead, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, believed the landmark decision would force elected officials to start developing long-term solutions and creating enough shelter beds for emergency needs. Instead, some regions are ignoring the ruling or finding ways around it, he said.
“If cities get as creative with solutions as they are with criminalization, we could end homelessness tomorrow,” he said.
Cline is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.