Most major cities in the United States struggle with providing affordable housing, and Portland is no exception. Given factors such as the relatively high cost of living in cities like Portland, it comes as no surprise to see rows of homeless camps lining streets in some parts of the city. According to KOIN, homeless camps have already been banned near high crash corridors. Now, that ban has been extended to also apply to pedestrian routes leading to schools as well as within 150 feet of school buildings.
Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, was quoted in KOIN saying, “School-age children should be able to walk, bike, and ride buses to get to and from schools without potentially dangerous hazards as a result of encampments, including trash, tents in the right-of-way, biohazards, hypodermic needles, and more.”
The housing issue is a contentious one for many cities in the U.S., and it’s one that Portland often grapples with. Earlier this year, Wheeler was also quoted in OPB about the crisis. “I would be an idiot to sit here and tell you that things are better today than they were five years ago with regard to homelessness,” he said. “People in this city aren’t stupid.” Many of Portland’s residents fear for their safety and neighborhoods as tensions brew between Portlanders and homeless folk, with destruction of property and trespassing becoming a common occurrence.
The problem is well known by Portland State students. When asked for his thoughts about the new ban, PSU student Daman McConnell said, “I would honestly say that illegalizing camps like that sucks, but it’s necessary for the comfort and safety of the students. I understand that 99% of homeless people are not dangerous in any way, but I’ve had multiple people as well as myself experiencing harmful encounters with them.”
One potential negative effect of this ban is that it might make people view the homeless with even more fear and suspicion than they already do. As advocacy organization Northwest Pilot Project pointed out, while homeless people may act out due to problems such as addiction, people who are not homeless are equally likely to do so.
Daman spoke about the challenges of striking a balance between avoiding stereotypes about homeless people while considering certain negative experiences. “A few years ago my friend was stabbed by a homeless man while volunteering,” he said. “Another friend of mine was sexually harassed by one, which resulted in her being inflicted with a fear of homeless people. It is often hard to overlook actions like those when it comes to making a generalization of the homeless population. I struggle to not get cautious and wary around homeless people, but I do try to help them when I can.”
One of the biggest problems people have with the mayor’s new ban is that experts and advocates about homelessness were not involved in the planning process. “It is concerning, because we are the experts on the ground in addressing housing barriers and understanding where the challenges are to getting people the addiction treatment or mental health treatment or hygiene or rent assistance that they need,” the director of the Northwest Pilot Project told KOIN.
However, finding a good solution to the problem is not easy. “The only real likely option I can think of is to increase the security around campus, but that would also carry negative effects as well,” Daman said. “Too much security could lead to the uncomfortableness of the students, yet I cannot think of an immediately beneficial solution. Other solutions might be to increase awareness and instead of trying to push them under the rug, we acknowledge them better. Coming up with a proper plan of action in how to handle a situation that might make one uncomfortable with said individuals. Otherwise, just enlightening students to treat them kindly, since they’re also humans, would help.”
In light of the Portland Street Response that has been hard at work since their full inception just over a year ago and the various homeless bans that were enacted, residents of Portland could face safer streets. But as various students and members of the community have mentioned in the past, it is a communal effort that both PSU and Portland will likely have to undertake to achieve a tenable solution for the homelessness situation.