Won’t Word Get Out That Portland Is a Shangri-La for Those Without a Home?

Such a premise—that supporting people experiencing homelessness will just attract more of them—is a common one.

CLOSED: Old Town’s homeless village closed in the spring of 2022. (Henry Cromett)

I read in WW that the city will be constructing villages capable of accommodating 1,500-plus houseless campers. That’s great, but won’t it be self-fulfilling? Won’t the word get out that Portland is a Shangri-La for those without a home, exacerbating the problem? —Perpetually Pursuing Paradise

I’ve heard plenty of knocks on Mayor Ted Wheeler’s $27 million plan to warehouse the city’s street-dwellers in massive tent cities, Pursuing, but I must say you’re the first to worry that conditions inside these camps may be too delightful. Call me a Negative Nancy, but I’m more concerned about a Mad Max-meets-the Black Hole of Calcutta scenario than I am with creating a real-life Big Rock Candy Mountain so plush that the unhoused will have to fight Kardashians to get in.

Still, your premise—that supporting people experiencing homelessness will just attract more of them—is a common one. In an (admittedly unscientific) survey of news from other cities, I was unable to find a single one in which the “homeless are flocking here to take advantage of our generous services” myth had not taken hold—and that includes such liberal bastions as Dallas and Oklahoma City.

Probably some people do comparison shop for a city in which to pitch their tents. Some people put metal rods in their urethras for fun, too; it’s a big world. But the most seductive part of the homelessness migration myth—that all these inconvenient people came from somewhere else and therefore shouldn’t be our responsibility—doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Of 1,448 unsheltered people surveyed in the 2022 point-in-time homeless count, Multnomah County says the vast majority were homegrown—they were either born here or had a home when they arrived.

Still, that leaves some people who could, in theory, have chosen Portland because of its generous services. But what, precisely, are these superior services? Soup kitchen meals? Every city offers those. Drug and alcohol treatment? If only more folks wanted it. Ample shelter beds and generously subsidized housing? Apparently not, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Sure, it’s nice of Portland to offer a leg up to the downtrodden, but it’s not like every other city has a policy of roasting the unhoused alive on sight. Most offer a short list of underfunded amenities quite similar to ours. Are we really going to be mobbed by hordes itching to experience the Rose City’s quirky take on a North Korean labor camp? I’ll believe it when I see it.

Questions? Send them to dr.know@wweek.com.

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