PORTLAND, Ore. — With school back in session for Portland students, KGW checked in with Mayor Ted Wheeler on his new emergency declaration to ban homeless individuals from camping near school campuses.
The ban went into effect about two weeks ago. Since then, the city’s Impact Reduction Teams have removed 50 homeless camps near schools. They’ve also referred seven people to addiction treatment centers and 350 people have since gone into shelter.
Mayor Wheeler said he knows the city still has a long way to go, but student safety is top of mind for him and his administration.
He sat down for a one-on-one interview with KGW reporter Blair Best to give an update on the city's progress. Here is a portion of the 18-minute interview:
Mayor Wheeler: "The executive directive that leads to the clearing of safe routes to schools has gone very well. We’ve removed about 50 camps. That started mid-August and by and large we haven’t had any problems."
Blair Best, KGW Reporter: “How is the city enforcing that people don’t come in right behind them and camp in that same location near the schools?”
Wheeler: “We do expect that to happen. One thing we’ve learned, once we clear an area typically people will come back even though there is no right to return. But this is really about sitting down and explaining one on one with individuals. We aren’t telling them they can’t camp in the city of Portland. In this case, what we’re telling them is there’s very specific reasons why they cannot camp on the safe route to school. That has to do with health, that has to do with safety of our kids and the vast majority of people understand and they do comply.”
Best: “There are some campsites near schools, specifically near the Metropolitan Learning Center in Northwest where campers there told me on Sunday that they’re camping in protest of this ban. They’re not leaving, so what is your response to that and what is your response to the parents that know this and don’t feel safe sending their kids to school?”
Wheeler: “Well, we’ve got to combine those two things, right? The reality is we always expect people to protest or to push back or some people to come back. But again, this is based on the reality that kids are walking around camps by walking into traffic to get around camps. That’s not safe for the kids and when we sit down and we explain to the campers why we are specifically moving them out of these safe route to school corridors, the vast majority understand. For those that are protesting, we will go back. We will repost, we will re-explain, we will offer services to those individuals — shelter, transportation, storage for their items.”
Best: “The reality is that there are people that are staying in those locations and this process that you just explained is so lengthy. It takes time. I’m not sure what the staffing looks like in order to be at all of these campsites. So it’s not an overnight fix and there are people living in these neighborhoods that don’t feel safe.”
Wheeler: “Yeah and that’s why I have passed these executive directives — the first around high-crash corridors. That’s why we started the street services coordination center, to make sure all of our city bureaus are working together to remediate the most problematic camps.”
Best said that many Portlanders have lost faith in the city’s response to this crisis. Wheeler responded that he's not surprised.
Wheeler: "After four years of horrific focus on what is clearly humanitarian crisis on our streets, I totally get that. Look, I live here, my kid goes to school here, I shop here, I go out to bars and restaurants in the city of Portland. I hear it all day long. I hear it early morning to late at night. I get the emails, I get the texts, I get the cat calls, I get people approaching me all the time. I understand the frustration and believe me, I share it, but we are making progress.”
Best: “Part of that frustration is just the number of phone calls and emails that people send through PDX Reporter through calling 311. It takes them sometimes hundreds of calls and months in order to even just get a response from someone on the other end. Why is that?”
Wheeler: “Yeah so here’s where I think we need to improve it. I still strongly encourage people please still call the 311 non-emergency line or use the Portland reporter of the PDX Reporter app that data is collected. We received just last week 3,140 campsite complaints. We get that information. It is prioritized. All of the camps are visited and assessed by our impact reduction teams, and those that are the most significant in terms of public safety, public health, environmental concerns they are remediated. And so that data is used. I think where we could be better about it is responding back to people and letting them know how that data is used.”
He said staffing shortages get in the way of them responding to every report, which is why many go unanswered.
Wheeler: “We’re not set up to address these kinds of significant social problems, but we are rapidly tooling up, getting the people the resources and the personnel that we need.”
He said the city is putting money toward building new infrastructure to address the homeless crisis.
Best: “What is your response to the people who have lived here for 10-20 years and now they’re moving. They say they’ve given up on Portland, and they’re selling their homes and they’re moving out because they don’t see that future that you’re speaking of.”
Wheeler: “They’re selling into the low. I’d strongly recommend against it if they’ve stuck around this long to the point where we’ve not put these programs and infrastructure. We’re starting to see the positive results. This isn’t the time to pack up and quit. I want people to work with us, not get mad and leave. Fine, get mad at me, scream at me, but work with me.”
Many argue it's difficult to work with the city when there's not enough staffing to answer their phone calls and emails. Despite all this, Mayor Wheeler said the city is making a turnaround and encourages people to go downtown and see for themselves.