City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez announced last week that Portland Street Response, the mental health crisis team under his watch as fire commissioner, would no longer hand out tents and tarps to homeless Portlanders.
He says the policy, which he crafted, received full-throated support from Fire Chief Sara Boone and the city’s fire marshal. He says Portland Street Response didn’t push back, at least “not to us.”
“Hypothermia is a risk, as is frostbite. But when talking about frostbite, you’re losing fingers,” Gonzalez tells WW, in an interview first published in Wednesday’s edition. “But these burns, they’re life changing even if they don’t kill you.”
Gonzalez says data from the Legacy Oregon Burn Center drove the policy: It showed that stays of homeless patients in beds at the burn ward went from a total of 294 days in 2017 to 1,803 in 2021.
Advocates have pushed back against Gonzalez’s policy, calling it cruel and inhumane during the coldest and rainiest months of the year. That criticism intensified after a hypothermia death during a record-setting snowstorm on Feb. 22.
“This weather event comes just days after Commissioner Gonzalez ordered the Portland Street Response to stop handing out tents or tarps to people,” wrote Justice Alexander Hager, communications director for the nonprofit Sisters of the Road, in a Feb. 24 fundraising email. “It also comes in the middle of a violent agenda of nonstop sweeps, traumatizing and destabilizing people who are struggling to simply survive.”
Gonzalez offered his explanation before the snowfall. He argued that his approach was the best of several unpleasant options after camp blazes spiked citywide over the past three years.
All outdoor, unconfined fires are illegal. But Gonzalez says he won’t ban cooking and heating fires—not yet, at least. “Every single fire you see in a homeless camp is illegal. The challenge is, what do you do about them? Do you put them all out? The practice has been to not put them out. Because of humanity, and recognizing that people are using this to keep themselves warm.”
The Joint Office of Homeless Services handed out tens of thousands of tarps and tents early on in the pandemic. It regularly hands out other warming supplies to homeless Portlanders. That would mean Gonzalez’s policy to ban PSR’s distribution of tents and tarps—which adds up to fewer than one thousand last year—might make a meaningless dent in fires at homeless camps.
“It may be marginal, honestly,” Gonzalez said. He says he may reconsider the policy—but not just yet. “It’s not off the table that we would allow that again in the future.”