Portland Business Alliance Invokes Landmark Camping Ruling in Letter Sent to Multnomah County Chair Kafoury

The letter, sent on May 25, urged Kafoury to find a way to fund 500 more shelter beds.

Lents Neighborhood Camping along a Southeast Portland bike trail. (Chris Nesseth) (Chris Nesseth)

The Portland Business Alliance sent a letter to Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury on May 25, asking that she dedicate more of her proposed budget towards shelter beds.

“We urge you to work with your fellow commissioners and the Portland City Council to identify more funds to new short-term shelter in this year’s budget. You have proposed adding 400 new shelter beds to the county’s current inventory bringing us to 2,200 beds. The last official count of the number of unhoused county residents was 4,015 in 2019...There is little disagreement that the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the number of unhoused residents sleeping on the streets,” the Alliance wrote in its letter to Kafoury.

The chair released her proposed budget on April 22, and received a flurry of criticism from Mayor Ted Wheeler, business owners and county commissioner Sharon Meieran, among others. They said not enough of the $52 million of the funds from the supportive housing services metro measure, approved by voters last year, were going towards short-term shelter and alternative shelter options.

The letter from the PBA offers some insight into the pressures boiling beneath a compromise reached last week by City Commissioner Dan Ryan and Kafoury—who are now joining forces to address the immediate needs of homeless people by erecting “safe resting villages” across the city.

The vision, Ryan explained at A Home For Everyone meeting last Friday, is six safe rest or parking villages dotted across the city with hygiene services and case management available.

In its letter, the Alliance floated the idea that money for such sites could also come from available city and county American Rescue Plan funds: “With hundreds of millions in ARPA funds available between the county and city, this is a reasonable amount to be able to dedicate to adding this needed capacity.”

Ryan announced last week funding would come from the city’s available ARPA funds.

But what stands out about the Alliance’s letter to Kafoury is not merely the plea for more shelter beds.

It’s the mention of a court case, Martin v. Boise, where the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that the city of Boise could not criminalize people sleeping on the streets if the city wasn’t providing enough alternative shelter to house those people. The ruling also applies to Oregon, since the 9th Circuit covers nine western states. But the ruling is vague enough to where many cities have not complied with it and have argued that current practices don’t violate it.

The Alliance wrote in the letter to Kafoury that the Martin v. Boise standard—what the Alliance later clarified to WW it means as the spirit of the ruling, and not necessarily the legal mandates of the ruling—suggests that “local governments must provide a warm and dry place for unhoused residents to sleep at any given time as a prerequisite to enforcing clear sidewalks, parks, and other public spaces.”

What the PBA is saying, a spokesperson contends, is that not providing enough shelter beds to serve the current number of homeless people goes against the ethical foundation of that ruling.

But that raises a question: If the PBA feels that Martin v. Boise is the ethical standard by which local governments should operate, does that mean it doesn’t want homeless camps swept until that standard is met? Last month, Portland City Hall expanded the criteria that warrants a camp sweep, and which the city would enable a “more aggressive” approach to camp sweeps.

The new protocols introduced a new list of criteria that would call for a sweep: eight or more structures, the presence of biohazardous materials or untreated sewage, and if a camp is blocking a walking path, business entrance or sidewalk.

When asked about where it stands on sweeps, the Alliance declined to comment.

Amy Lewin, a spokesperson for the Alliance, told WW that “In our letter, we’re talking about a budget and challenging the city and county to be better at addressing our community’s pressing homelessness crisis...We’re committed to helping make sure there’s clarity about what the capacity is for our shelter system and also the capacity need. That’s what our letter is focused on.”

When asked about the PBA’s letter and its mention of the Martin v. Boise ruling and if the city and county had a moral obligation to halt sweeps until enough shelter was available for every homeless person, Kafoury told WW: “Asking me to weigh in on someone else’s motivation or morality is designed to pit us against each other and make this about politics instead of about the people surviving outside.”

Disclosure: The Portland Business Alliance’s 1,900 members include WW’s parent company.

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