Intent on Moving People From Roadside Camps, Portland Mayor Demands State Funding for Emergency Shelter

The governor’s office pushes back against the suggestion that the state has done little to help Oregon cities with homelessness.

tents Tents line a warehouse in Portland's Central Eastside. (Brian Burk)

On a conference call with the League of Oregon Cities and other Oregon mayors Friday morning, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler demanded that Gov. Kate Brown and the Legislature come up with money for emergency shelters in a number of cities during the upcoming legislative session.

“While the affordable housing investments come in line over the next three years, we need the state government to match the funds to expand the temporary shelter space now and save lives. This is an Oregon issue, not just a Portland issue,” Wheeler said.

Brown recently proposed a $12 million ask from the upcoming short legislative session for trash pickup, Wheeler said: ”But no funds have been offered for temporary houseless shelters, even though I’ve asked the governor herself. I will oppose, I will say no, to any kind of Portland-only solution that leaves out help for other Oregon cities.”

Wheeler did not specify a dollar amount that he and the other mayors plan to request. Mayoral aide Sam Adams said on the call that several cities were drafting funding requests.

The mayor said he would “oppose any solution offered that does not include funds for temporary houseless shelters, and that’s acknowledging that funds for litter, while important, won’t make any appreciable difference while we have people living in squalid conditions in those locations.”

The governor’s office pushed back against the suggestion that Brown had done little to help cities with homelessness and emergency housing, but it did not say whether the governor would support the mayors’ proposal.

Brown spokesman Charles Boyle says the governor and the Legislature are working on a $400 million investment in affordable housing across the state, including Portland. “That framework has been presented to the Legislature to finalize in the legislative budget process,” Boyle says.

“Addressing the housing crisis in Oregon is one of her top priorities in her last year in office, just as it has been throughout her tenure,” Boyle says. “Oregon has dedicated more resources to affordable housing, homelessness, and rental assistance under her tenure than under all previous administrations combined.”

Boyle also said state funding for trash pickup was a separate matter that Wheeler was now trying to leverage into funding for shelters. “The governor discussed a $12 million proposal for trash cleanup in the metro area with the mayor, Metro President [Lynn] Peterson, and Multnomah County Chair [Deborah] Kafoury,” Boyle said. “That discussion took place in a meeting specifically about trash cleanup efforts in the Portland metro area.”

Boyle says the governor’s office “plans to review any proposals from Mayor Wheeler when and if he brings one forward for the Legislature to consider. At this point, I have not seen such a legislative ask.”

Wheeler’s public demand, made in front of other elected officials and invited members of the press, is part of an aggressive, high-stakes gambit by the mayor’s office to move homeless people from roadside campsites into shelter beds, amid signs the public has lost patience with the city’s failure to address the abject poverty visible at every highway exit.

Today’s move follows a state of emergency Wheeler declared last week, along with an order that banned camping alongside state highways and Portland’s busiest streets. But to make that rule stick, Wheeler needs somewhere to move people.

During his Feb. 4 remarks on the ban, which Wheeler says is aimed at preventing homeless people from being killed in traffic, he stressed the state’s role and responsibility in housing people in its cities. He said he had “made a pitch to governor just now to ask for thousands of more beds.”

Wheeler pledged that camps alongside roads and highways would be swept and take priority over other camps deemed “high impact” by the city. It’s unclear, however, how the ban will be enforced and what resources will actually be dedicated or reallocated to sweeping the camps.

Declaring a state of emergency allowed the mayor’s ban to bypass approval by city commissioners. (This frustrated Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty last week, who said neither she nor the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the bureau she oversees, were aware of the upcoming order until news outlets reported the ban before it was announced. Wheeler pushed back, saying his colleagues were “certainly aware.”) Last week, activists penned a letter to Wheeler, warning that his ban would displace people without offering them shelter.

The mayor’s office says it is working on opening 100 beds across existing shelters for people displaced by the emergency ban. The Joint Office of Homeless Services earlier this week told WW it would likely be weeks before those beds became available. Meanwhile, the ban took effect last Friday.

Other mayors have now joined Wheeler in seeking the cash for more beds from the Legislature.

Mayor Lucy Vinis of Eugene said on today’s call that what had started as local requests have “mushroomed into a larger statewide request for emergency one-time funding in this upcoming session.”

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