In a public hearing Wednesday afternoon, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and city commissioners said they never intended to allow temporary shelters in city parks as a way to ease Portland homelessness, and pledged to remove language that might have done that.
The promise follows a week of outcry directed at City Hall, including from former elected officials, at the idea of using parks as shelter sites, even for short periods.
City Commissioner Carmen Rubio said she and her colleagues don't want to do that.
"There seems to be an agreement among council offices that there's not intent and there never was intent to put temporary outdoor shelters in parks and natural areas," Rubio says. "Council recognizes and agrees that this intent was not as clearly reflected in the policy as it should be, and we need to clarify it through amendments."
But the zoning code proposal, Shelter to Housing Continuum, includes a detail that has concerned many residents: It would allow managed "temporary shelters" in parks and natural areas for up to six months.
The code change would not sanction the homeless camps that already exist in Portland parks. Any shelter would have to be managed by a public or nonprofit agency and gain prior city approval.
That's a distinction that confused many community members—and one that WW failed to report in a print story this week. (We have corrected that story.)
But any use of parks for housing, managed or not, appeared unpopular with many of the 2,000 people who submitted testimony this week. So Wheeler on Wednesday both clarified what the policy as written would do—and said he and his colleagues don't plan to do that, after all.
"I want to reiterate: This project is not about legalizing unsanctioned camping," Wheeler said. "What we are trying to do here is remove barriers to building more managed programs run by public agencies and qualified nonprofit partners to achieve positive outcomes on both of these priorities."
But Wheeler conceded the policy could be more clear. "Instead of stating intent, we are now being explicit about it in the language," he added. "I support this. I think it will put a lot of people at ease."
Commissioners voiced their support for an amendment that would remove natural areas from the list of open space zones that can be used as temporary shelters. Temporary shelters in all open space zones throughout the city would still be allowed under emergencies, Rubio said.
The reassurances from the City Council were part of a larger and historic policy, the Shelter to Housing Continuum, which reduces the obstacles currently required to site shelters in all parts of the city for unhoused Portlanders.
That plan has drawn support to a degree unusual amid the often bitter arguments over where shelters can go in Portland. Advocates hope that increasing the options for organized shelter sites will ultimately provide more humane options for people who currently have no place but woods and wetlands to camp.
On March 31, the City Council will vote on whether or not to extend the current housing state of emergency that expires April 4, and the plan is to finalize the amendments to the code changes that same day.