I have often heard that Portland should look to Amsterdam as our model to address homelessness. To drill down further, I visited the Netherlands in June.
I found that Amsterdam is not the open drug market, with dealers and users on display, that I witnessed on my last visit in the late 1980s.
Yes, the coffee shops that sell weed and hashish are still there. Yes, the well-located pastry and chocolate shops right next to the coffee shops are still there (so smart).
But the panhandling and homelessness that was evident throughout the city then are gone. The sad, filthy Amsterdam of the 1980s has become one of the most beautiful and remarkable cities I have ever visited.
Unfortunately, the Amsterdam of the 1980s reminds me a lot of Portland in the 2020s.
To better understand how Amsterdam had pulled off its transformation, I spent a day with Jessica Hoogenboom, the manager of an Amsterdam shelter and a part of the largest homeless services agency in Amsterdam, De Regenboog Groep (The Rainbow Group).
As she explained, early on, Amsterdam city leaders tried the caring approach, hoping to provide ever more services in hopes it would lead lost souls to help. It didn't work. Jails were filled. A lot of crime was being committed. They had a lot of people addicted and dying on the street.
The city council then turned the problem over to the Amsterdam Municipal Health Service to come up with a strategy to deal with unmotivated drug users and the homeless. In sum, social services were partnered with police services. Here's how they responded.
Amsterdam has 24 Day Centers (De Regenboog Groep has the most) that provide meals, showers, clean clothes swap, social services and trust for the homeless. These centers are open for about six hours a day. All are welcome, residents and non-residents of the Netherlands.
Like Oregon, the Netherlands decriminalized drug use. Three of these day centers have sanctioned drug-consumption rooms with the goal of reducing overdoses, blood-borne diseases and public nuisance. The Netherlands, like Oregon, prohibits open drug use. But Amsterdam acknowledges that use will occur and provides this harm-reduction resource for those who are homeless. These rooms are clearly focused on providing a link, when the user is ready, to access health and social services and find a path out of addiction.
Avoiding the 'magnet' effect
Coordinating outreach throughout Amsterdam are seven Neighborhood Teams (Buurtteams) that are administrative intake centers located in every district of the city. They provide links to services and set up plans to help those housed from falling into houselessness and those homeless to become housed, free of charge.
However, they do add this restriction, as outlined in The Blue Booklet, which is like Portland's Street Roots Rose City Resource book: "You must have sufficient regional ties to Amsterdam or services will be denied (the municipality will check this)."
Amsterdam used to be a magnet for Europeans looking for easy access to heroin. Restricting access to homeless services, except for day centers, to Amsterdam region residents stopped the inflow. To draw a distinction, today, based on Multnomah County's 2019 Point in Time homeless census migration section, 53% of Portland's unsheltered are "Homeless Upon Arrival." Two-thirds (64%) of these individuals have arrived in Portland from outside of Oregon or Clark County. Like the Amsterdam of the 1990s, Portland has become a magnet for the homeless.
Amsterdam has no walk-in emergency shelters. Hoogenboom said that if she were to become homeless tomorrow, she would have to sleep on the street as their shelters, like Portland's, are overprescribed. But unlike in Portland, she would not be allowed to camp.
In Portland, police based on the Boise v. Martin ruling cannot enforce our no-camping codes unless a shelter bed is available. Amsterdam has no such restriction.
I explained to her that in response to the Boise v. Martin ruling, I am working on establishing a network of Pop-Up Community Shelters using dignity-focused spaces that are empty and available at night to provide shelter, safety, services, security and safe sleep to all our unsheltered with a goal towards allowing enforcement of our no-camping rules.
Hoogenboom said she'd love to have resources like those I envision for Portland. In an emergency, she can dig deep into her budget and buy a night at a hotel for an at-risk homeless soul, but this is a luxury for one soul and takes away resources from serving her many.
One of the most important changes implemented in Amsterdam is that the police are now partners with the entire homeless services system. They act as community outreach. No open drug use is allowed. Zero tolerance for drug dealing. Zero tolerance for camping.
The day centers provide an immediate resource for the neighborhood officer to refer anyone they find on the street in need, the nearest location is only a short distance away. In addition, they never ticket a homeless person, acknowledging that they are never going to get money from a person who has none.
By contrast, the Portland police, who are on the front lines caring for our city, have driven, or walked by open-air drug markets, open drug use, and camps (all of which are against our codes) dozens of times. They are only following orders from their superiors, at the direction of our elected officials, to stand down. All the while the quality of life for both the homed and homeless suffer. In the case of the homeless, sometimes the worst outcome is loss of life.
Amsterdam has nothing more or less than Portland.
They both lack affordable housing and are two of the most expensive cities in their respective countries. The difference: Their mayor, city council, police, fire, justice system, and homeless service agencies all work together to communicate and coordinate and ensure their standards and civic codes are meaningful. No bureaucracy, just a partnership that involves all stakeholders.
I believe we can end unsheltered homelessness in Portland. I often say the "P" in Portland stands for pride in our city. Perhaps we will end unsheltered homelessness when the "P" stands for partnerships.
Keith Wilson is president and CEO of TITAN Freight Systems in Portland, and a board member of Shelter Now in Portland. Learn more at shelternow.org
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