PORTLAND, Ore. — Wednesday afternoon saw the beginning of public comment in a Portland City Council session that stretched on until 9:00 p.m., as Portlanders voiced opinions on Mayor Ted Wheeler's sweeping plan to address homelessness.
More than 200 people registered to testify during Wednesday's session.
Mayor Wheeler's plan, released in full Friday as five separate resolutions, would require major cooperation from both Multnomah County and the state of Oregon to fully enact. Portland would need to ask state partners, including the governor and state legislature, to increase state and local funding for affordable housing.
The plan includes long-term goals for the city in terms of available housing. It calls for the construction of 20,000 units of affordable housing by 2033, as well as a landbank of up to 400 publicly owned sites suitable for multi-family housing development. Wheeler also called for the city to identify vacant or underutilized privately-owned properties for potential conversion into shelter space.
Perhaps the most contentious aspect of the plan is an eventual ban on unsanctioned camping throughout the city, phased in over a period of 18 months. This would require that all of Portland's homeless people be directed into shelters of one kind or another: indoor congregate shelters, Safe Rest Villages and a handful of large, designated campsites. The mayor's plan calls for three of these sanctioned campuses.
"We were thrilled to see significant and actionable ideas about how to address in an urgent manner what we see on the streets every single day and that is a significant challenge to our business community, so we were thrilled," said Andrew Hoan, president and CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, ahead of the afternoon session.
The Portland Business Alliance was one of many interest groups expected to have representatives testify on the multi-part plan Wednesday, not all of whom are entirely in favor.
"I feel like that part of the plan really needs to be informed by people for whom it impacts," said Kaia Sand, executive director of the nonprofit weekly publication Street Roots, "for whom, you know, it's going to change their lives. And I think when you're talking about policy that's going to change people's lives then they should be brought into the room."
Street Roots' focus is on homelessness and related issues — both employing homeless members of the community and advocating for their interests. Sand said that they are holding a viewing party of the hearing where homeless Portlanders will have a chance to testify virtually.
During opening remarks on Wednesday, Mayor Wheeler acknowledged that some of the city's previous efforts to get people off the streets were largely unsuccessful but yielded important insights.
Many homeless people told outreach workers that they did not want to stay in indoor congregate shelters and would rather stay on the street, Wheeler said. Some indicated that they would prefer an outdoor shelter where they could pitch a tent without fear of being forced to move, while having access to sanitation and other services.
"For many, designated outdoor camping, with services, would be seen as a significant improvement over their current conditions," Wheeler said.
During invited testimony, Sand from Street Roots was the first to give clear pushback on the proposal — urging Portland's commissioners to remove the portion that would ban street camping until other aspects of the plan could be enacted and the city could do comprehensive outreach with the homeless community.
"Let's focus on the good policy that you can rally — at least through leadership even if it's not sketched out — you can rally our community around," Sand said, "but not tie up our time and our energy and honestly the legal resources in terms of political grandstanding that's not really designed to be effective."
Andy Miller, executive director of nonprofit Our Just Future, praised some aspects of the proposal, but said that it did not address some solutions to homelessness that service providers simply lack the funding to operate at the necessary scale. Like Sand, he also found the prospect of criminalizing street homelessness troubling.
"Clearly these initiatives attempt to consider a range of approaches that attempt to solve the community crisis, but I ultimately believe they are going to fall short," Miller said. "And they do not fully account for the root causes of homelessness and the best practices other communities are using. We believe there's a better approach that we should be focusing on."
As public testimony began, Portlanders with disabilities gave emotional testimony about their inability to navigate the city with homeless people camping on the city sidewalks. Speakers included representatives of a group of people who have sued the city for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"It's not okay to criminalize homelessness," said Tiana Tozer, lead plaintiff in the lawsuit. "But neither is it okay to trap people with disabilities in their homes. This has been called a humanitarian crisis. As a former humanitarian aid worker, I'm confounded how after a natural disaster we can shelter thousands of people, but the current plan is going to take 18 months."
The speakers with disabilities were far from the only ones in favor of the proposal as presented — a number of people expressed full-throated support for a plan that would work to address homelessness more rapidly. Many of them were members of Portland's business community.
"We are doing our part, now we need you and our county chair, our legislators and new governor to do theirs," said Hoan from PBA, referring to tax revenue raised by the 2020 Supportive Services Measure. "I worked for the largest homelessness services provider in New York City for two years, and I categorically reject the nonsense statements from some in our community that small and large shelters don't work — they absolutely do. This is one more excuse that we tell ourselves."
But many other Portlanders expressed concerns, in particular, about the plan for large, sanctioned homeless camps. Some wanted to know how these camps could be humanely kept clean and safe.
A man who identified himself as Peter testified that he is experiencing homelessness. He feared that he and others would be arrested if one of the plan's options didn't suit them.
"This place is going to be a concentrating camp," said Peter. "The criminal element will have a field day. Hygiene will be a terrible problem."
Some who testified suggested those problems already exist on city sidewalks, and business owners argued that the current state of homelessness in Portland is threatening their livelihoods.
“My industry is in turmoil," said Alex Dawes, general manager of Embassy Suites. He said there must be changes and supports the mayor’s plan. “This is what it comes down to for our industry to survive. Visitors to downtown want to feel safe and comfortable as they enjoy our city.”
On a larger level, what remains unclear about Wheeler's plan is how it would avoid falling prey to the same entropy that affects nearly every one of Portland's ambitious proposals for addressing homelessness, of which there have been several. Commissioner Dan Ryan's initiative for Safe Rest Villages has been slow to get off the ground, and a plan to host a "safe parking site" for car campers at the Portland Expo Center fizzled earlier this year. Nearly any proposed shelter inevitably faces stiff headwinds from neighbors, sometimes backed by legal action.
Wheeler said that the city council did not plan to vote on these resolutions Wednesday, instead continuing the session to Thursday, Nov. 3 at 2 p.m. for additional testimony and votes.