How bad is the homeless problem in Portland, and is the city doing enough to fix it?
PORTLAND, Ore. – The state of homelessness in Portland is one of the most visible issues in the city. It’s hard to hide – more than 1,800 people sleep outside in tents or on the streets every night. That includes children, families, seniors and people with disabilities.
If recent events are any indication, the issue is reaching a breaking point among Portlanders with and without a safe place to sleep.
1. The city’s State of Emergency isn’t enough
After Mayor Hales declared a State of Emergency for housing and homelessness in September, both the city and the county dedicated millions of dollars toward creating more shelter beds. But even though the city added 283 beds and made another 290 open year-round, shelters are still at capacity every night.
That leaves many on the street and some neighborhood associations and local businesses are fed up. On April 20, both Hales and the City of Portland were sued by a group of neighbors and businesses over the city’s new policy that allows people to camp on sidewalks and public land.
The city’s new policies don’t sit well with some homeless people, either.
“With the State of Emergency, people are being allowed to do things that they weren’t allowed to do before,” said Trish Reed, board member of the camp Right 2 Dream Too. “It makes people feel unsafe.”
With the mayor announcing the city is cleaning up the Springwater Corridor, where hundreds of people camp every night, the homeless have even fewer places to go.
2. Crime near homeless camps is alarming neighbors
Not all homeless people commit crimes. But recently, crimes including a rape and thefts have neighbors on alert.
On March 18, a homeless man allegedly raped a woman on the Springwater Corridor bike trail. Police believe the victim may have survived the attack because she told the suspect she was a child.
Residents in some neighborhoods are also reporting increased theft and seeing more RVs parked on the street for days at a time.
3. It’s getting more dangerous for homeless people, too
Homeless people say sleeping outside can be a frightening prospect.
On March 31, a homeless man allegedly shot a fellow camper in inner Southeast Portland. Then on April 23, a homeless man was accused of stabbing another homeless man in downtown Portland.
Over a 48-hour period in April, a homeless camp on Northwest 19th Avenue and Thurman street was set on fire – twice.
Firefighters say they’ve responded to between 15 and 20 fires at homeless camps in the last two months. Investigators believe they may be arson.
For the homeless, the fires and crime leave them not only scared but also looking for yet another place to sleep.
“All that’s going through my head is, I’m trying to think of another spot to go to,” a homeless man at the NW 19th and Thurman camp said.
4. Homeless camps are taking over sections of the city
The battle over where Portland’s homeless population should camp has incited contentious debates. In the Overlook neighborhood, neighbors are fighting to stop people from sleeping at the Hazelnut Grove camp.
Longtime camp Right 2 Dream Too in downtown Portland has heard multiple proposals of where the city thinks they should be relocated. Most recently, Mayor Hales proposed moving the camp to Southeast 3rd Avenue and Harrison Street.
On the Springwater Corridor, the homeless campers have driven away visitors and even a summer camp for kids.
Mayor Hales announced that the city is paying a firm up to $40,000 to study the trail and come up with possible solutions and ways to approach the people living there.
5. Tourists are taking notice
Portland’s popularity with tourists has never been higher, but people visiting the city for the quirky culture featured on “Portlandia” have been shocked by the homeless problem they find when they get here.
At Travel Portland, which has successfully garnered Portland-centric write-ups in the New York Times and other national publications, staff say they have seen a spike in complaints from visitors, from one a month to a couple a week.
“They're frightened by some of what they see... drug use, blatantly on the streets, the very aggressive street behavior,” said Jeff Miller, CEO of Travel Portland.
A satirical Yelp review even rated Portland’s street camping scene five stars.
6. It’s probably going to get worse
The problems associated with homeless camps are bad now, but many say the issues will likely grow.
In the summer, more transients historically visit Portland and more people choose to sleep outside instead of in a shelter.
“It’s typical to see numbers going up when the weather gets nice,” said Stacy Kean with the Union Gospel Mission. “People are looking to steal the few belongings that you have or physically assault you or sexually assault you. It’s a pretty dangerous situation to be sleeping on the streets.”
Maggie Vespa contributed to this report.
Published April 27, 2016