Editorial: A homelessness strategy for our current reality

The multi-pronged strategy forwarded by Mayor Ted Wheeler to build outdoor sites for homeless campers and eventually ban unsanctioned camping isn’t a plan for solving homelessness.

But it’s a plan for helping solve the reality we’re in right now. Even with hundreds of millions of dollars going to rent assistance, shelter beds and new apartment developments, the homelessness crisis is deepening. Oregon’s severe housing shortage means that the same pressures driving up rents and leading to evictions will drag on for years until the region can make up its housing deficit. Without a shift in approach, the rampant unsanctioned camping that’s already overwhelming Portland will only persist ­­– continuing to expose those who are homeless to deadly threats, complicating efforts to connect those with mental illness or drug addictions to services and destabilizing the community as a whole.

Wheeler’s plan offers a much-needed change in direction. The proposed six camping sites would provide security-patrolled places for up to 250 campers to sleep, receive meals, access restrooms and connect with outreach workers. Beyond the campsites, the city would aim to add some 20,000 units of affordable housing in the next 10 years. And it would work with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to create a diversionary program so that once unsanctioned camping is banned, people can avoid the criminal justice system by accessing needed mental health or drug addiction services.

Despite fierce pushback by some critics, the Portland City Council should stick to its plan and approve $27 million to create the camps, hire outreach workers and fund other services. But this is also a moment of truth for regional leaders to consider the roles they should play.

Importantly, both Gov.-elect Tina Kotek and incoming Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson have backed the concept, pledging to work collaboratively with the city. That explicit support as well as their track records of accomplishment are reasons for optimism for this ambitious effort.

Outgoing Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has not openly supported or opposed the plan, even as city officials have indicated their interest in tapping the county’s excess $28 million in homeless services money to help fund the sites. Kafoury told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that she is already seeking to use those funds to cover several asks by the city. But with less than two months left in office, Kafoury should step back and leave the discussion and ultimate decisions to Vega Pederson to lead in January.

Metro officials must also be part of the discussion about funding. As Willamette Week’s Sophie Peel reported, city officials have broached the subject of changing the formula that Metro follows for distributing homeless services tax revenue to Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. With the vast majority of the homeless population in the Portland area, Wheeler’s office is right to question whether a greater share of dollars should go to Multnomah County. While Metro has resisted Wheeler’s inquiries, voters should press Metro Council to explore the issue.

Because the status quo is not working. And contrary to critics who cast the proposal as lacking compassion, Portlanders should question the compassion of what we have now. How does leaving thousands of people in tents across the region ensure that they are safe? A city transportation bureau study found that 70% of pedestrians killed in traffic crashes last year were homeless. At least 16 people who are homeless have been killed this year, making up about 18% of the city’s homicides as of last month. In 2020, 126 homeless people died on the streets in Multnomah County, a record since the county began collecting the data.

And how does unsanctioned camping – the city counts some 700 separate encampments of three tents or more ­– help beleaguered outreach workers connect individuals with the services that can help them? An Oregonian/OregonLive survey earlier this year of 300 homeless individuals found that 66% said they had never been contacted by an outreach worker to help them take steps toward getting housing. Of those who had an initial contact, 75% never heard from the outreach worker again, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Nicole Hayden reported.

Since 2016, voters have endorsed a $258 million Portland bond measure and a $653 million Metro bond measure to fund affordable housing construction. They have backed a Metro income tax worth $2.5 billion over 10 years to pay for supportive services for those who are homeless. Multnomah County, which runs the joint city-county homeless services office, is spending more than a quarter of a billion dollars this year alone for homeless initiatives. There’s no lack of compassion or willingness to dig deep to pay for this humanitarian crisis.

There is, however, an expectation that such a massive amount of money will mean an improvement in living conditions for all of us ­– less trash, no open drug dealing and fewer tents occupying neighborhoods and blocking trails and sidewalks. There’s an expectation that money meant to fund outreach workers and services will translate into connecting people with the mental health care they need. And there’s an expectation that the leaders whom voters entrusted to address these issues will take action. Voters have said yes over and over to what leaders have asked. It’s time leaders listen as well.

-The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board

Oregonian editorials

Editorials reflect the collective opinion of The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board, which operates independently of the newsroom. Members of the editorial board are Therese Bottomly, Laura Gunderson, Helen Jung and John Maher.

Members of the board meet regularly to determine our institutional stance on issues of the day. We publish editorials when we believe our unique perspective can lend clarity and influence an upcoming decision of great public interest. Editorials are opinion pieces and therefore different from news articles.

If you have questions about the opinion section, email Helen Jung, opinion editor, or call 503-294-7621.

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