Portland Mayoral Aide Outlined Ideas to Eliminate Unsanctioned Camping Across City

His idea: build three shelters to accommodate 3,000 people total, and bring in National Guard security specialists, social work graduate students, and medical personnel to help manage them.

A homeless camp along Interstate 84 in East Portland, with Mount. St. Helens on the horizon. (Brian Burk)

A memo sent Jan. 31 by one of Mayor Ted Wheeler’s top aides to three other government offices details ideas to end homeless camping across the city and compel campers to move into three emergency shelters, each with the capacity to hold 1,000 people a night.

The aide, former Mayor Sam Adams, characterized his own notes and ideas as startling.

“I understand my suggestions are big ideas. I imagine it will startle some,” Adams began in his eight-page memo. “Only these four governments working closely together, and we solve these issues. Our work so far, mine included, has failed to produce the sought-after results.”

Adams details a joint “recovery plan” by Metro, Multnomah County, the city of Portland and the governor’s office that would launch on June 1, 2022, and aim to “end unsanctioned camping and clean up the city.”

WW obtained a copy of the memo today, shortly after Wheeler publicly demanded state funding for emergency shelters.

In an interview, Adams first characterized the memo as “a plan to end the need for unsanctioned camping.” But he later said it was not a plan; instead, the document is just a collection of notes.

“This is not a proposal, this isn’t even a plan,” Adams says, and added that Wheeler had not seen or approved of the notes. “This is Sam Adams putting concepts out there, looking for discussion, based on our research of this issue.”

The bare bones of possible actions outlined in the memo:

  • Build one to three shelters that accommodate up to 3,000 homeless people.
  • Place the locations on city-owned land or use eminent domain to use privately owned land.
  • Hire unarmed Oregon National Guard “security specialists,” medical personnel, and graduate students from Portland State University’s social work program to help manage the sites.
  • Get access to federal dollars by jointly declaring a disaster and have the “governor, chair and mayor invite their West Coast counterparts to join in making official and simultaneous requests for [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] to declare houselessness a federal emergency eligible to receive federal funds.”

The end game: prohibit all unsanctioned camping in Portland, starting with a “phased-in” approach that removes camps that impact schools, that violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by blocking sidewalks, that are near hospitals, or that are located near high-speed roads.

“To be clear, this is to remove the need for unsanctioned camping, not to remove unsanctioned camping,” Adams says.

The plan hasn’t gained traction in other government offices, and it’s likely to horrify advocates for unhoused people. But it reflects growing public rancor toward the squalor on Portland’s streets: A December poll found nearly 8 in 10 Portlanders favor compelling homeless people to move into shelters.

The mayor’s office has already acted unilaterally on one idea mentioned in Adams’ notes: On Feb. 4, Mayor Ted Wheeler banned camping along highways and the city’s deadliest streets, citing Portland Bureau of Transportation numbers showing that 70% of pedestrians killed last year by cars were homeless people.

In his memo, Adams compares homelessness to a natural disaster like a forest fire or a hurricane, and says regional governments should use the same response: huge emergency shelters.

“I suggest an emergency disaster approach of a larger campus(es)”, Adams wrote. “Maybe less chartered territory, but it seems reasonable to suggest that human-made disasters like houselessness that ends lives and livelihoods need an emergency response just as a forest fire blazing through a community does. We should demand this recognition from the federal government, even if we lose.”

Adams also mentioned another motive, beyond the humanitarian, for opening such shelters: Allowing unsanctioned camps to exist increases the likelihood of the state being sued.

“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,” Adams wrote. “The likelihood of suing the government for failing to comply with public sanitation and chronic nuisance laws is unknown. We will need to consult the government attorneys. If it gets to the point of a pretrial discovery phase, we will all be dealing with public records requests and court proceedings for years.”

Adams tells WW that legal liability issues were part of the reason Wheeler implemented the ban last week: “The deaths themselves are motivators, but so is the legal risk to the city.” He adds that the memo is merely “putting talking discussion items out there, and what we heard from [the governor’s] staff is that they’re having their lawyers review some of the concepts and that they’ll get back to us.”

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

City Commissioner Carmen Rubio tells WW she was not aware of the memo. “That idea would never fly with us—and if true, I hope that would be a nonstarter for the mayor,” Rubio said.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says that “based on what has been reported, this half-baked plan is a nonstarter.”

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury declined to comment.

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.”

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