With the homelessness crisis cited among their top concerns, Oregon voters are taking note of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s declaration of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the state’s largest city.
Oregon has among the highest homeless populations in the nation per capita. According to DHM Research, 9 of 10 voters statewide identify homelessness as a “very big problem” as Election Day draws near.
In the Portland metropolitan area alone, an estimated 6,000 people are experiencing homelessness, according to Multnomah County’s 2022 point-in-time count, an annual census of the unhoused.
“The magnitude and the depth of the homeless crisis in our city is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe,” Wheeler said in an Oct. 26 city council meeting.
Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan described homelessness as the city’s “No. 1 problem” and painted a bleak picture of its impact during the meeting.
“It is inhumane to watch the homeless suffer,” Ryan said. “It is also irresponsible to not to address the safety concerns of neighbors and business owners who are deeply impacted by the consequences of untreated behavioral and mental health issues and drug addiction.”
He described disturbing trends in the City of Roses.
“Declining enrollment in Portland Public Schools means families are moving away,” Ryan explained.
Population growth is flat.
“People are not choosing Portland as their home as often as they used to,” Ryan said.
“Portlanders report they don’t feel safe allowing their children to access our parks. Elders don’t feel safe strolling along the riverfront or simply walking to the local grocery store.”
“Portland businesses with a long history in the city have closed because their employees don’t feel safe doing their jobs, walking to lunch, or commuting on public transportation.”
“Our county, state, and region cannot move forward without addressing this issue.”
At the meeting, Wheeler and Ryan proposed five “resolutions” to try to reduce homelessness.
The first involves building 20,000 housing units by 2023. The city currently has a five-year waitlist for people to get into affordable housing.
A proposed workforce program aims to “find non-standard” paid work for unhoused people—work that better fits their needs so that they can sustain those jobs.
Their plan will also ban unsanctioned camping, but increase access to other camping options with mental health and sanitary services. Reports indicate that the first camp would not open for 18 months.
Another resolution entails working with the local district attorney to create a “diversion program” that gives people who are homeless and cited for low-level offenses “more opportunity to address their legal issues and get them resolved.”
Wheeler says the city will rework its budget to prioritize affordable housing and connect the homeless with mental health, sanitary, and substance abuse recovery services.
The cost to taxpayers was not discussed.
The council will work to refine the proposals before voting on them on Nov. 3.
Wheeler acknowledged that previous government “solutions” have sometimes exacerbated the problem.
Just last month, a group of Portlanders filed suit against the city, claiming that tents were blocking the sidewalks in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Weeks later, the lawyers for the suit learned that Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services had distributed 6,550 tents and 27,000 tarps to the homeless in 2021.
The lawyers argued those very same tents could be the ones blocking the sidewalks.
“The city has been trying to address ADA issues and the recent lawsuit makes it clear that we have not done enough,” Wheeler said. “These are important concerns and ones that we need to address as a city.”
In May, Wheeler banned camping on the sides of “high-crash” roadways after learning that 19 of 27 pedestrians killed by cars in Portland last year were homeless. People in at least 10 encampments were given 72 hours to leave.
“Nearly 800 unsanctioned encampments spread out over the 146 square miles of the City of Portland,” Wheeler said. “Something needs to change.”
But many Portlanders have lost faith in city leaders.
In a recent poll conducted by The Oregonian, nearly 75 percent of Portland voters said the city is “on the wrong track.”
And 81 percent believe the 2020 George Floyd protests and more than 100 days of unchecked riots, even as Wheeler announced the defunding of police by $12 million, harmed the city.
Still, Wheeler called on other Oregon officials to join him and “declare a statewide emergency.”
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