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Citing fires, Portland commissioner calls a halt on distributing tents and tarps

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez's office released a statement announcing a "temporary suspension" of tent and tarp distribution from his bureaus.
Credit: Blair Best
Homeless camp in St. John’s neighborhood off the Peninsula Crossing Trail

PORTLAND, Ore. — The city commissioner in charge of Portland's Fire Bureau declared Tuesday evening that they will cease handing out tents or tarps, citing recent fires at homeless camps.

Commissioner Rene Gonzalez's office released a statement announcing a "temporary suspension" of tent and tarp distribution, at least for the bureaus under his purview, effective immediately. They are still permitted to distribute sleeping bags, blankets and other warming supplies.

The commissioner's office cited a recent rash of fires at homeless camps, including one that happened Tuesday morning under the east side of the Morrison Bridge, near Southeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

There were no injuries in Tuesday's fire, according to Gonzalez's office, but a dog and her six puppies died as a result. An investigation into the fire's cause is ongoing.

"It has become clear that tent and tarp-related fires are a grave public safety emergency for our city," Gonzalez said. "Unsanctioned fires put our first responders, houseless individuals and our neighborhoods at risk. I am taking immediate action to save lives and protect Portlanders from life-shattering injuries. To Portland’s houseless community members: I implore you to seek shelter in public warming centers during cold weather events."

Portland Fire Marshal Kari Schimel added that Portland Fire & Rescue has responded to more than a thousand tent or tarp-related fires within the last two years.

"On each of these calls our first responders put their lives at risk," Schimel said. "Given the heat sources generating these fires and the flammable nature of the materials in question, I have unequivocally advised Commissioner Gonzalez that there is no such thing as a safe, unsanctioned fire in a tent."

Gonzalez took charge of the Fire Bureau this year after defeating incumbent Jo Ann Hardesty in November. A reshuffle of bureau assignments by Mayor Ted Wheeler broadly put Gonzalez at the head of Portland's public safety apparatus, but Wheeler retained control of the Portland Police Bureau.

Within the Fire Bureau, the program primarily responsible for distributing tents or tarps would be Portland Street Response, Gonzalez's office acknowledged. The unarmed crisis response team, which primarily interfaces with Portland's homeless population, was championed by Hardesty during her tenure as fire commissioner.

It's not entirely clear how many tents or tarps Portland Street Response would typically distribute. According to a progress report released in December, the team had handed out 473 tents or sleeping bags over a six-month period between April and the end of September 2022, after the program expanded citywide.

Previous reporting by KGW suggest that Multnomah County, through the Joint Office of Homeless Services, purchases many of the supplies used on Portland's streets — thousands of tents and tens of thousands of tarps each year. Late last year, JOHS was cutting back on the frequency and amount of warming supplies it distributed to nonprofits.

Multnomah County declared a state of emergency and opened a trio of warming shelters Monday evening due to a wave of winter weather that was forecasted to drop snow on Portland overnight. The county determined that it would not reopen those shelters Tuesday night after the snow threat diminished.

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