Editor's note: This story was published on October 1, 2017
Tent City, USA is a KGW investigative project that explores who Portland’s homeless tent campers are and what led to the proliferation of tent camps across the city. Tent City, USA was reported and produced by KGW's investigative team: Kyle Iboshi, Maggie Vespa, John Tierney, Sara Roth and Gene Cotton. Infographics and multimedia design by Jeff Patterson.
To better understand Portland’s population of homeless tent campers, KGW’s investigative team surveyed 100 people living in tents.
The survey was conducted between July and September 2017 in every quadrant of Portland: Northwest, Southwest, Northeast, Southeast, and North. Campers were able to remain anonymous. Further interviews, both on and off camera, as well as photographs, were voluntary. Campers were surveyed in both highly visible locations, like downtown, and hidden areas of the city, such as forested areas in outer Southeast. The survey itself was simple and brief, in order to allow for widespread participation.
The campers were asked five basic questions:
1. How long have you lived in a tent?
2. Where were you living before?
3. How long have you lived in Portland?
4. Why do you live in a tent as opposed to other sheltered locations?
5. Given the choice tonight, would you rather sleep in a shelter or a tent?
The last question may seem redundant, but the goal was to discern whether shelter unavailability was a major contributor to tent camping, or if people see tents as preferable to shelters even if there was plenty of space for them inside.
Question 1: How long have you lived in a tent?
The majority of people (63 percent) surveyed have lived in a tent for longer than a year. For most, tent camping is not a temporary living situation.
One in four have lived in a tent for more than five years. Twelve people have been in a tent for more than 10 years. Two people said they have lived in a tent for 20 years or more.
Still, there is a sizeable population of new tent campers; 37 people said they have lived in a tent for less than a year.
Question 2: Where were you living before?
Seventy percent of people said they had been living in an apartment or a house before living in a tent, meaning there wasn’t much of a transition period between living in traditional housing and living in a tent.
A few said they were previously staying in a vehicle, shelter, transitional housing or hotel. Seven said they moved to a tent after living on the street. The “other” answers ranged from living in a trailer to a church to foster care.
Question 3: Why do you live in a tent as opposed to other sheltered locations?
The reasons people have for living in a tent are myriad. Every answer was nuanced and some offered multiple reasons. KGW did not prompt people’s answers, but many fell into the same broad categories.
The most popular response was issues with shelter residents and rules. Forty-three campers complained of tight quarters, conflict with other shelter residents, and rules such as sobriety, curfew, and the inability to stay in most shelters throughout the day. Even if a shelter provides a space to sleep, often rules will require residents to leave every morning. Some who cited this reason said they had mental health issues themselves and don’t want to subject other shelter residents to their unpredictable nature.
Eighteen people said they had issues with unsanitary conditions in shelters. Several said they contracted illnesses from shelters, due to other residents. Some said they encountered bed bugs.
Nine people said safety issues, such as inappropriate sexual advances or fighting, kept them out of shelters.
While shelter issues dominated the responses, 18 people also said they just liked independence and open space. Many talked about how much they enjoyed waking up in a natural setting.
Twenty-one said they couldn’t stay with their significant other or pet in a shelter. Some shelters do allow couples and pets, but they are usually full.
Question 4: How long have you lived in Portland?
The vast majority of people surveyed said they are not new residents. Only seven people out of 100 said they moved to Portland in the last year. More than a quarter of respondents said they have lived in Portland for at least 10 years. More than one-third said they have lived in Portland their entire lives.
Question 5: Given the choice tonight, would you rather sleep in a shelter or a tent?
Overwhelmingly, respondents said they would prefer a tent tonight over a shelter, reiterating the many issues campers had with shelters. Eighty-nine percent of people surveyed said they would rather stay in a tent.
The 11 percent who said they would prefer to stay in a shelter were, for the most part, either quite young or older with health issues.
A few of the respondents who said they’d rather stay in a shelter were in their early 20s and struggling after a difficult upbringing that involved on-and-off homelessness. Most of the others who said they would rather stay in a shelter had been homeless for quite some time, but were dealing with significant health issues now that they’re older and a shelter would provide a more comfortable sleeping environment and access to services. Many of the people who said they would rather stay in a shelter had difficulty finding space in a shelter, or couldn’t stay in a shelter that also allowed their pets or significant others.
Portland’s homeless population by the numbers:
4,177: Total number of homeless people in Multnomah County – 10 percent more than in 2015, according to the 2017 Point in Time Count
1,668: Number of unsheltered homeless (sleeping in vehicles, tents, on the street) – the lowest since 2009
71: Percentage of Portland’s unsheltered homeless population who are chronically homeless
5: The percentage of unsheltered homeless people nationwide who live in Oregon (source: National Alliance to end Homelessness report)
Photos: Tent City, USA
Published Oct. 9, 2017