Our opinion: It's time for Portland to address most dangerous homeless camps
Portlanders once showed great pride in their city's beauty and livability. Today, residents feel embarrassed by the physical state of Portland — the trash, graffiti, ubiquitous homeless camps and vandalism-scarred buildings.
The Portland City Council took a small but significant step on May 19 to address a portion of these problems. By approving new rules to speed up the removal of homeless camps, the mayor and city commissioners signaled they want to pull Portland back from the brink of chaos.
Now, the public will — and should — expect to see visible progress on the issue of homelessness. Dismantling unsafe, unhealthy and unsightly camps can be accomplished with compassion for the homeless. Portland, Multnomah County and the Metro region have greater monetary resources directed toward homelessness than ever before. We agree with the council that the time has come to reverse the policies of the past year, when concerns about COVID took precedence over dismantling unsanitary camps.
It's worth remembering that in 2015 the city declared a housing state of emergency. The issue of homelessness was of such public concern six years ago that it did, in fact, require urgent action. Now, in 2021, the state of emergency is still in force, and the problem has exploded. For more than a year now, authorities have removed or relocated very few camps.
This passive approach — attributed to COVID-19 — allowed camps to grow in size, becoming seemingly permanent fixtures along freeway corridors, on sidewalks, and in the medians or edges of local streets. These camps are inhumane for the people living in them, and they harm the quality of life for everyone else.
The council's recent action will allow the removal of 10 to 15 camps each week, which is double the number being dismantled during the pandemic. Still, that goal seems small compared to the 50 camp removals done each week pre-COVID. However, after a year of being left alone, the camps are now larger and more entrenched. Homeless people who formerly had one tent capable of being moved on short notice now might have three tents filled with their belongings.
So, it does make sense that contractors who do this work will need more time. The bigger the camp, the longer each removal will take. We agree with the priorities spelled out by the city's Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program. Contractors first will tackle larger encampments, campsites with untreated sewage, camps that present a public health risk, and those with crime problems or other hazards.
This list of priorities should lead contractors very quickly to some of the freeway camps, where residents are within a few yards of tens of thousands of cars passing each day. The safety issues are obvious, with residents wandering onto freeway lanes or ramps, and the health threats — fumes and particulate pollution — are completely unacceptable.
Removing or relocating camps does not, of course, solve the problem of homelessness in the Portland area. But as we noted in a previous editorial, many forces are coming together, giving us hope that real progress can finally be made. The approval of Metro bonds in 2018 to build affordable housing, and the approval of a Metro levy in 2020 for homeless services, brought new regional resources to supplement the tens of millions of dollars already being spent jointly by the city of Portland and Multnomah County.
Portland is testing the theory that money cannot solve every problem, while the private sector also has stepped up in a more significant way than it has in the past. The longer-term solutions include even more shelter beds (the 1,000 added in the past five years already are filled), more permanent housing for low-income people, and more rent vouchers to move folks into apartments or keep them from becoming homeless in the first place.
But Portlanders are tired of waiting for the long game. They look around their city and are ashamed of what they see — including clearly unhealthy conditions for the region's homeless population. The money and tools are available to make a difference. Processes and facilities are in place, for example, to collect and store camp residents' personal property.
It's frustrating to think the goal now should be to get back to pre-pandemic levels of camp removals. Homelessness was already the No. 1 issue on the public's mind before COVID. But the start of real change comes with a shift in attitude.
Portland needs to move away from "tolerance," which too often can drift into indifference. Instead, it must enforce standards that protect the quality of life for those with homes and without. The city's recent decision on camp removal is a positive sign that the shift is occurring. The city's recent decision on camp removal is a positive sign that the shift is occurring.
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