As West Coast Leaders Pledge to Crack Down on Homelessness, a Mass Shelter Concept Copies Their Law-And-Order Approach in Portland

“This plan threatens a whole range of community values and brings us into an unchartered territory. It should not be treated lightly.”

Many Portlanders recoiled last week at an idea proposed by mayoral aide Sam Adams to create three massive homeless camps to house up to 3,000 people.

Shocking as Adams’ memo, first reported by WW, might have been, its aim to aggressively move campers off of streets is consistent with what leaders north and south of Portland are saying.

During a December press conference to address burgeoning homelessness and crime in her city, the liberal mayor of San Francisco called the streets there “nasty.”

“We are not a city where anything goes,” said Mayor London Breed.

Breed’s statements that day marked a stark shift in her tone around homelessness. She soon after declared a state of emergency in the crime-heavy Tenderloin neighborhood. There, she greenlighted federal arrests of people with outstanding warrants. She pledged to compel people to go to rehab programs. Her stern rhetoric and actions enabled law enforcement to be more assertive about disrupting sales of stolen goods.

“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result,” Breed said.

Last fall, Los Angeles banned camping in certain parts of the city, allowing law enforcement to more aggressively clear encampments.

To the north, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a progressive Democrat, is urging lawmakers to pass a bill that would create a new agency to remove camps along highways.

Over the past several months, progressive West Coast leaders have announced their intent to crack down on homelessness, an abrupt shift in what has historically been a more hands-off approach. If anything, Portland is late to recognize a substantial change in voter sentiment.

Recent polling in Portland shows voters here would welcome what not long ago would have seemed drastic measures. A Jan. 28 poll by DHM Research for the Portland Business Alliance found that homelessness is the top issue on voters’ minds and 79% of Portlanders “support requiring people who are currently living outside to sleep in shelters or designated camping locations.”

That doesn’t mean 8 in 10 Portlanders support Adams’ concept, an arguably extreme notion of shelter—no other coastal leader has publicly proposed requiring 1,000 people to move to a mass shelter. But it does show that Portlanders are hungry to remove tents from the streets, so much so that they don’t want to give homeless people any choice in the matter—something Adams mirrors in his memo.

On Feb. 11, WW reported the eight-page memo penned by Adams, a top aide to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. (He shared it two weeks earlier with the offices of Gov. Kate Brown, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Metro Council President Lynn Peterson.)

The memo floated the concept of a mass shelter model using National Guard security forces and social work students to help manage the camps. He proposed that it be an intergovernmental effort drawing on state and regional offices.

And while many critics rejected the memo out of hand, it fits in with the trend of other West Coast cities’ efforts to remedy homelessness.

“We’re falling back on the old ways of more law, more order, the punitive ways of listening to the wealthiest and most powerful people for solutions,” says Angela Uherbelau, founder of Oregon Kids Read, who calls the memo “frightening.”

Dan Saltzman, the city’s former housing commissioner, however, says the memo may be jarring, but a lot of Portlanders support the thrust of it: “It’s honest about the number of homeless people we have in the city,” Saltzman says. “It’s got a lot of moving parts, but I wouldn’t be so quick to dismiss it.”

Mayor Wheeler says all options are on the table.

“I directed my team to leave no stone unturned in finding a solution that will address this problem in an urgent and meaningful way,” Wheeler says, “and that is exactly what they have been doing.”

Adams’ memo comes at a pivotal time for Portlanders, when their frustration over sprawling camps is boiling over.

Since the Portland City Council declared a housing emergency in September 2015, officials have proposed a series of modest, unsuccessful ideas. The latest: six “safe rest villages” that Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan promised last year but hasn’t delivered yet.

Some housing advocates balked at Adams’ idea, calling it inhumane and cruel.

“Forcibly relocating people already suffering to mass shelters, which many on the streets have been clear will not work for them, and staffing those shelters with untrained members of the military and students is an inhumane response to our failed approach to house all our people,” said Human Solutions, a low-income housing provider, in a statement.

Other government offices and Wheeler’s colleagues on the City Council also panned it.

Commissioner Carmen Rubio said it was a “nonstarter”; Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty called it a “half-baked idea.” Ryan’s office said he “remains opposed to the concept of mass encampments with inadequate services.”

The governor’s office tells WW it won’t consider the idea, citing “a number of unanswered legal, logistical and financial questions.”

Even City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, generally a supporter of Wheeler’s policies, called the proposal an “overcorrection” to the “current hands-off approach [that] has failed everyone”: “There are ethical and effective solutions between internment and anarchy.”

Wheeler’s response: Doing little to nothing is no longer an option.

“Allowing for dangerous, squalid living conditions is not how we treat our houseless community with compassion and empathy,” Wheeler said in a statement. “The current solutions do not match the scale of our problem.”

Wheeler already invoked his emergency powers earlier this month to unilaterally ban camping along highways, an idea laid out in Adams’ memo. It allowed him to bypass the approval or opposition of his council colleagues.

Last week, Wheeler said the ban on sleeping along highways was prompted by a Portland Bureau of Transportation report that found 70% of pedestrians killed by cars last year were homeless.

Adams raised another threat in his memo: lawsuits by fed-up Portlanders.

“I have been told school parents, neighbors, and business owners are gathering evidence and looking for potential plaintiffs and lawyers to sue state, county and city for failing to enforce camps that violate public sanitation and chronic nuisance rules,” he wrote.

“The deaths themselves are motivators,” Adams tells WW. “But so is the legal risk to the city.”

Uherbelau says she thinks People for Portland, the advocacy group that’s been highly critical of conditions on city streets and has talked publicly of legal action, is swaying the mayor’s office.

“It’s such a hard lurch to the right,” Uherbelau says. “It’s hard to imagine the mayor’s office floating an idea like this before the dark money push.”

People for Portland tells WW: “Don’t blame us for the mayor’s incompetence or bad ideas. This one is both. We’re the voice of 80% of Portlanders who believe every person who needs the safety and hope of shelter should get it. The status quo is indefensible. We need more action and results—not useless memos and blame-shifting.”

Others see Adams’ memo as an expression of Portlanders’ frustration with tents, trash and drug use on sidewalks, even as local and state governments are awash in dollars to reduce homelessness.

The question remains: When Portlanders see a proposal for a crackdown in writing, will that reduce or increase their appetite for it?

Ethan Seltzer, a professor emeritus at Portland State University’s Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, says there’s an “unresolvable tension” right now over homelessness. Seltzer says Portlanders feel solutions for homelessness are moving with “glacial slowness” and adds that the memo might “recalibrate that balance between a desire to see something happen and a desire to not appear to be callous in some way.”

But some other cities are already a big step ahead of Portland in their own crackdowns, and Wheeler has already acted unilaterally on one pillar of Adams’ concept by banning camping along highways.

That, political strategist Len Bergstein says, is a trend that local elected officials ignore at their peril. “It’s not just an eye roll and let’s move on kind of thing,” he says. “This plan threatens a whole range of community values and brings us into an unchartered territory. It should not be treated lightly.”

This article was published with support from the Jackson Foundation, whose mission is: “To promote the welfare of the public of the City of Portland or the State of Oregon, or both.”