PORTLAND, Ore. — With a unanimous council vote to amend city code, Portland commissioners vowed Wednesday to speed up the process of clearing some homeless camps while deprioritizing the clearing of others. They also gave their formal stamp of approval on a plan to build six “villages” throughout the city, where people cleared from campsites can set up their tents legally.
"We are in the process of reshaping how we respond to the homelessness crisis," said Mayor Ted Wheeler at Wednesday's council meeting.
Among other things, the changes cut through bureaucratic red tape, letting crews clear camps on land owned by any city bureau without checking with that bureau first. When the city opts to clear “high impact” camps, which officials deem pose a threat to public safety or health, workers will be instructed to point campers toward any one of six “villages” to be stationed throughout the city.
While the code changes go into effect immediately, the villages won’t be up and running for months. Officials haven’t even chosen their locations yet. Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan said Thursday he hopes to have that information nailed down soon.
“All the [city] bureaus were asked to provide parcels,” said Ryan of the selection process. “I would say the public will have better information about that in August.”
Ryan said construction of the villages will be covered by federal COVID relief money. They should be open by the end of the year.
“And this is unprecedented to go this fast. So I realize that and I'm challenging myself and the entire city. It's all hands on deck,” he said.
The code changes come at a pivotal time. While there’s no new data to back up the perception, many believe Portland’s housing crisis grew to record levels during the pandemic. For months, fears about COVID prompted city officials to largely cease clearing homeless camps.
Business owners, frustrated by the state’s year-plus of inaction, told KGW this week they’re hesitant to believe this new change will make any difference.
“I really do want to believe this, but at this point based on the actions of this past year, it's just words to me,” said Stacey Gibson, who owns multiple Subway franchises throughout the city. “We still have a lot of issues with theft. The homeless abuse the staff when they're coming in and demanding bathrooms and just stealing soda.”
Perhaps adding to the pessimism, commissioners also voted Wednesday to deprioritize clearing "low impact" camps. That description applies to camps that are more than 150 feet from preschools or elementary schools, more than 100 feet from high schools, more than 50 feet from parks and more than 10 feet from the entrance to a business or residential structures.
Ryan said Thursday he feels for business owners like Gibson but called homelessness a humanitarian crisis.
“I really want to get away from the false binary between ‘sweep or not to sweep,’” he said. “Instead, we need clear direction on how we regulate that and also how we build.”
That said, calls for some camps to be cleared are tough to ignore. Case in point: Laurelhurst Park. KGW began covering the Southeast Portland camp back in November. In the months since, dozens there have refused to leave, and activists argue forcing them would be inhumane. But some homeowners in the area are terrified. They report harassment, theft and fires.
Commissioner Ryan said Thursday this new code change will make it easier to clear the camp, but he wouldn't say when that might happen.
And KGW went back Thursday, only to find the area around Laurelhurst Park looks the same.
Ethan Kelley, who was living in his car, said he liked the city’s idea of providing “villages” where people, cleared from campsites, could go.
“Oh, yeah I think it's great,” he said. “I mean, it's probably not a complete answer to the problem. I mean, more permanent housing would probably be a better thing to shoot for, but for the time being, it's a good option.”