Illustration by Zahira Zuvuya

New houseless measures dehumanize in the name of compassion

Portland City Council’s actions aren’t living up to their rhetoric

Not much is more politicized than the rising number of people who are experiencing houselessness—particularly those who are considered unsheltered and living in tents. In the latest tri-county Point in Time Count, conducted on Jan. 26, a total of 6,633 people experiencing houselessness were counted in Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah Counties.


Multnomah County represents the largest number of people experiencing houselessness at 5,228 people—with 3,057 considered unsheltered, 1,485 in shelters and 686 in transitional housing situations. It is important to note how these numbers should be considered an undercount, as it doesn’t account for those who might have been doubling-up that night, those who were missed in the count or various other reasons which might affect these numbers. It is meant to be a snapshot estimate.


In response, the City of Portland claims to address the issue with a plan to help people, though it hardly seems like a viable solution and contains elements which are inhumane and far from compassionate.


On Oct. 26, City Council held a seven-hour meeting, which was open for the public to comment on the proposed plan, with hundreds of members of the public having signed up to testify. This meeting was rigged to push a narrative which supported the passing of the plan, as it was later revealed how Commissioner Dan Ryan pushed 16 real estate brokers and those in the business industry toward the front of the public testimony line. Although it’s common for commissioners to invite people to testify their opinions in the public comment portion of these hearings, Commissioner Ryan remained silent when Mayor Ted Wheeler asked if any of the council members wished to invite anyone to speak.


The whole thing was a charade, as it was later revealed that Mayor Wheeler’s office facilitated Commissioner Ryan’s request of prioritizing those 16 speakers. Pushing people who signed up to speak days in advance down the list in favor of real estate brokers reveals Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Ryan’s corrupt nature and manipulation to create an early narrative which supported the plan.


Despite being a public forum organized by Street Roots for people with lived experiences to speak against the proposed plan, the proposal was ultimately approved two days later. On Nov. 3, Portland City Council approved a plan consisting of five resolutions with the aim to address houselessness in Portland. The plan—created by Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Ryan—made a speed run from its announcement to its passing in less than two weeks. All five of the resolutions passed unanimously except for one, with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty casting the lone opposing vote to the resolution which included the inhumane camping ban.


Before going deeper into the resolution containing the proposed camping ban, it would help to get a basic understanding of what is in each of the resolutions.


Resolution 37593 is focused on increasing affordable housing construction. It aims to help increase access to paid non-standard work. The resolution consists of the camping ban as well as the proposal for the construction of six designated camping sites, which would serve a maximum of 250 people per site. It goes over budget priorities for implementing affordable housing, as well as connecting people experiencing houselessness with mental health and substance abuse services. Finally, resolution 37597 aims to create diversion programs for those experiencing houselessness.


While parts of these proposals seem reasonable and positive on the surface, much of what’s in this plan is either questionable, insufficient, unnecessary or just plain cruel.


As solutions go, housing-first approaches have shown to be highly effective, as these bypass barriers or preconditions which so many shelters and other transitional services require, all while costing less than similar shelter programs. Knowing housing-first approaches—which connect those experiencing houselessness with permanent housing solutions—are highly effective, resolution 37593 may seem like a good idea at first glance.


The crux of the resolution is to create 20,000 affordable housing units within the City of Portland by building a landbank of 400 publicly-owned sites, working with state partners to acquire local and state funding for affordable housing programs and finding vacant and under-utilized privately-owned buildings—all by the year 2033.


While all of this seems nice and dandy, it doesn’t mention anything about how to keep affordable housing affordable. Just a month ago, 31 low-income residents of the Prescott Apartments in North Portland were notified their rent had sharply increased—up to 50% in some instances. Though Commissioner Ryan facilitated an agreement with the new owners of the Prescott Apartments to not raise the rent for another 18 months after tenants protested the proposed rent hikes, the fact that the apartments were legally allowed to do so in the first place is a huge red flag.


These units are part of the Multiple-Unit Limited Tax Exemption (MULTE) program, so these are only required to remain affordable for 10 years, upon which the landlord can then raise rents to the market rate. To make matters worse, more than 800 apartments in Portland are about to lose the same affordable housing protections for low-income tenants. Is Commissioner Ryan going to negotiate with all of those parasitic property owners as well?


On top of this ridiculous 10-year limit, buildings under the MULTE program don’t have to adhere to SB608, the state’s rent control legislation. Let’s also be clear—SB608 is hardly rent control in the first place, as Portlanders are poised to see possible rent increases of up to 14.6% in 2023, which is legally allowed under the supposed rent control bill. SB608 also doesn’t include buildings which are 15 years old or newer, prompting questions about any new construction of affordable housing units in the City’s plan and whether these will see the same fate as those 800 residents will be facing here shortly.


For a county with a minimum wage of $14.75—well short of the calculated living wage of $21.60 for a single adult with no children—this problem is like so many others. The solutions require addressing the larger structures at play, which are the root of all this suffering. Even with the calculated living wage of $21.60, the average rent in Portland is above $1,700 per month. For a city politicizing the problem of those experiencing houselessness, it sure doesn’t do anything to tackle the rising cost of rent, which is the number one cause of increasing rates of houselessness in the first place.


While these other resolutions have more holes than swiss cheese, the resolution drawing the most attention is the ban on camping.


Originally, the plan was to establish three 500-person camps before being changed to six camps with an initial serving capacity of 150 people with the hopes of serving a maximum of 250 per camp. The timetable for the implementation of these camps is set for 18 months, and although the Portland City Council just approved a package of $27 million to begin this process, estimates for maintaining the camps run anywhere from $30 million to $67.5 million annually.


Even with these wide-ranging estimates, not only does the plan lack specifics about the sources of where these funds will come from, these estimates also don’t account for sleeping bags, tents or even the initial cost of setting up the camps in the first place. In fact, the estimates for the construction of the 20,000 affordable housing units is close to $10 billion, prompting the mayor to call that part of the plan a “moonshot.” This admission should be a huge red flag as—despite all of the questions about how these affordable housing units will stay affordable—it seems the primary goal of this entire plan is to criminalize those experiencing houselessness by forcing them into camps, with the affordable housing resolution being the one which seems most out of reach, according to the mayor.


The proposed construction of camps holding upwards of 1,500 people makes a whole lot more sense when we look at the Ninth Circuit decision of Martin v. Boise, which states, “homeless persons cannot be punished for sleeping outside on public property in the absence of adequate alternatives.” In effect, this would allow the further criminalization of those experiencing houselessness if the plan by City Council is able to establish a maximum 1,500-person camps, as well as the opening up of more shelter beds in the already established shelters as part of the same plan.


Newly elected Commissioner Rene Gonzalez has supported this criminalization repeatedly with his belief that those who refuse shelter should face prison time or citations. In fact, resolution 37597 seems to only be a part of the plan to address the criminalization created under resolution 3795, revealing the cyclical nature of this ridiculous plan which creates a crime in one resolution while trying to address the newly-created crime in another.


Many more details about these camps remain unknown—including who will be running them and where they will be located. With no indication of where these six camps are to be located, one can imagine how the locations will certainly face controversy and pushback from angry Portlanders and businesses in proximity to those locations, much like Commissioner Ryan’s proposed locations for his Safe Rest Villages.


As for who will manage the camps, the only name publicly mentioned as a candidate for running at least one of the camps is a California-based company called Urban Alchemy, which makes one wonder why the City Council is contacting an out-of-state organization rather than looking to local providers who live and work with the community.


Another issue is the approved $27 million packages mentioned above. $750,000 of the package is set aside for private security to patrol the perimeters of the camps, eliciting images of prison guards walking along the fence or looking downwards from guard towers.


So if this plan is insufficient and inhumane, then what solution will work? The narrative describing those experiencing houselessness as those who are falling through the cracks always seems to neglect how those cracks are an integral part of capitalism. The failure to address this source of suffering fails to improve the lives of those who are purposely left gasping for breath by the effects of capitalism. It also leads to narrow-minded solutions which never seem to address the structural causes that are the source of these issues in the first place, especially when housing-first approaches are proven to be effective and rather simple compared to the nonsensical ideas proposed time and time again.


Ask most Portlanders how they feel about their houseless neighbors in tents, and you will likely hear hateful rhetoric which sounds awfully similar to how the far-right talks about the marginalized groups they routinely attack. If the rhetoric you hear doesn’t come out in words of open disgust and disdain towards their houseless neighbors, then you may hear insincere arguments which use the word compassion. These arguments about compassion have been pushed by many in the public, local and state politicians and those at The Oregonian’s editorial board. The common narrative argues that allowing people to live in tents isn’t compassionate. They say we are lacking compassion for businesses and those who have a roof over their heads by making these people feel uncomfortable or threatened by having to see people living in tents. They say everything we are doing now lacks compassion for everyone in the city, so much so that they fail to see the irony in the false narrative they are creating. 


In a recent interview on OPB’s Think Out Loud, Mayor Wheeler stated, “A compassionate response is giving people a safe location with access to toilets, to water, making sure that we have litter collection and other basic services.”


I struggle to understand how forcing people into large camps under threat of criminal punishment is a compassionate response. Just because there exists a wide consensus that something needs to be done doesn’t mean we have to do something which dehumanizes our houseless neighbors under the guise of compassion. Real solutions can be found by upending the structures and institutions which place property over people, instead of supporting the City Council’s plan that is the very source of the problems they are trying to address. History has never looked back kindly on instances where people were forced to live in large camps under the threat of punishment, and I find it hard to see how this will be any different.