In a seven-hour session on Wednesday, more than 200 Portlanders offered their opinions on Mayor Ted Wheeler’s five-part plan to house the homeless.
Some, like Andrew Hoan, president of the Portland Business Alliance, gave it full-throated approval, while others accused Wheeler of seeking to build concentration camps. Kristin Teigen, an instructor at Portland State University, compared the plan to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
“Those leaders were responding to significant political pressure, as I’m sure you all are today,” Teigen said.
Two parts of the plan drew the most praise—and ire. Wheeler proposes to create three massive “campuses” where homeless people could set up tents and to couple that with a phased-in camping ban across the city. Nearly all testimony—both in support and opposition—addressed those pieces of the proposal.
Each commissioner invited people to testify, and a group of real estate agents invited by City Commissioner Dan Ryan were among the first to speak. They told the council a string of stories about would-be buyers who canceled deals and fled the city after seeing homeless camps on the street.
Ernest Cooper, owner of Cooper Realty LLC, said he had buyers from Malibu, Calif., who wanted to buy a house in the West Hills, but after driving through downtown to look at listings, they decided not to move to Portland after all. Another young couple found a house they loved in Southeast Portland but dropped their bid after discovering a homeless camp around the corner.
“They decided to move to Washington County,” Cooper said.
When advocates got their chance, they countered the agents—and Wheeler—in the strongest terms.
“I’m here to oppose the mayor’s proposal to round up homeless people in concentration camps,” said Jonathan Cobb, a case manager at Transition Projects. “It’s so easy for you treat those who have nothing as little more than trash that has to be swept up. Sweeps kill. I don’t care if there is a social worker with a clipboard there. It is a cruel and violent system, and you, sir, have blood on your hands.”
Jennifer Parrish Taylor, director of advocacy and public policy at the Urban League of Portland, offered more measured testimony on how the plan might affect Black people.
“Black Portlanders are more than twice as likely as their white peers to experience homelessness,” Parrish Taylor said. “A camping ban will undoubtedly lead to an increase in the arrest and criminalization of Black people whose only crime is poverty.”
But it was the least dramatic testimony—from the two candidates for Multnomah County Chair—that might might have said the most about the future of Wheeler’s plan. He needs cooperation from the county for it to work, and that relationship has been strained by tensions between the mayor and outgoing County Chair Deborah Kafoury.
Jessica Vega Pederson and Sharon Meieran, both county commissioners, spoke in support of the mayor’s proposals. The two are locked in a heated contest for chair, a position that carries nearly absolute power over the Joint Office of Homeless Services’ budget of $262 million, one of the largest pools of discretionary funding in the state.
Kafoury has sparred with Wheeler over homelessness spending. In an email to the Portland City Council earlier this week, Kafoury made no promises to sign on to Wheeler’s plan.
“If the mayor’s office wants to ‘clean up’ this city and enforce time, place and manner laws, they don’t have to hide behind me or anyone else,”Kafoury told WW. “They can just do it.”
Testimony from Vega Pederson and Meieran indicated a new chair might bring warmer relations.
“It was important for me to be here in person as a demonstration of my commitment to partnering with the city now and in the months to come,” Vega Pederson told the council Wednesday. “The only way to bring about real, lasting solutions is by working together.”
Like many others who testified, Vega Pederson said she worried that homeless people could be jailed under the camping ban, but that didn’t diminish her support for the plan.
“We can never get to a point where we are jailing people for no other reason than not being able to afford a place to live,” she said. “But I know the intentions today will followed by hard work, follow through, and genuine commitment to solve these issues. I’m ready to move forward in such a partnership.”
Commissioner Hardesty accepted the olive branch.
“What a difference it makes when the county wants to partner with us, as compared to seeing us as the enemy,” Hardesty said.
Meieran, too, offered her “unequivocal commitment” to the plan, but whereas Vega Pederson listed the county’s accomplishments on homelessness, Meieran was more critical.
“The city has a been bearing a lot of the brunt of public criticism,” she said. “But in reality, the county has a more direct role providing homeless services along with mental health and addiction services. The city has stood in to fill the gaps where the county has failed to play its role as the local mental health authority.”
Many critics of the plan said Wheeler had failed to ask homeless people what they needed to get off the streets and was instead relying on sweeps and camps.
“Have you talked to houseless people?“ asked homeless advocate Jennifer Kruszewski. “I’ve been at camps when sweeps go on, and services are not offered and people are not treated with respect. They have to rush to collect what belongings they have while the rest of them are bagged up and thrown away. Stealing the belongings or people who barely have anything to call their own doesn’t help them.”
Wheeler countered the criticism by saying he had spoken to homeless people.
“What people said is that they want a place where they can go that is outdoors where they can still live in a tent situation and have access to hygiene,” Wheeler said. “This might not be appropriate for everybody, but for some people it might be. We can’t connect people to services when we have 800 camps spread out over 146 square miles. With fewer sites like this, we might have a fighting chance.”
Testimony on Wheeler’s plan continued today.