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'I’ll take common sense over expertise': Portland mayor candidly addresses business leaders about his aggressive homeless plan

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler told members of the Portland Business Alliance that "so-called experts" had criticized his plan as inhumane.

PORTLAND, Ore. — On the second floor of the downtown Hilton Hotel, out from under Thursday’s rainstorm, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan spoke to roughly 150 members of Portland’s business community about a different storm — one that they said has been brewing on the streets for years.

“A significant number of people on our streets are very unwell,” Wheeler said. “We did this to ourselves, and we did it intentionally with 30 to 40 years of neglect of our mental health infrastructure in our state. It took decades to get where we are and it’s going to take a long time to dig ourselves out of the hole.”

It’s a hole that keeps getting bigger, he said, in part due to drug use. Wheeler said drug overdoses among the homeless population have increased 94% between 2019 and 2021.

“So, there’s a couple of trends that we have been watching that we have been aware of that have helped shape our decision to go larger and to be bolder,” Wheeler said of his aggressive plan to ban unsanctioned homeless camping by the summer of 2024. The plan calls for the construction of six large, designated and professionally-managed camping sites instead. Each would be equipped with hygiene services and case managers, seeing as wait lists for affordable housing are five to seven years long.

Last week, Portland city council approved $27 million to pay for the plan.

“The status quo based on expertise isn’t working and I think we can all see with our own eyes what the problem is," Wheeler continued, "and if we truly care about connecting people to services and get off and stay off the streets then they need to be in a location where we have a reasonable shot, we have a fighting chance of connecting them to services.”

Wheeler seemingly let his guard down in this setting while responding to critics of this plan.

“I have these so-called experts telling me I’m inhumane! Because I’m asking people not to occupy our public spaces wall to wall. At some point for me I’ll take common sense over expertise,” he argued.  

Commissioner Dan Ryan also weighed in, claiming his Safe Rest Villages — which faced their fair share of hurdles and community backlash — were a successful first step in the mayor’s broader plan. He asked the crowd for a round of applause for his work on the Safe Rest Villages.

“It’s been hell and it’s been worth it … I feel like the Safe Rest Villages were our baby step in regard to this so I broke some wind, if you will,” Ryan said.

The mayor also took aim at the county’s current leadership. 

“The Joint Office of Homeless Services, to be blunt, has not been transparent with the city. They have not provided us basic data, financial data that we have requested. It does not feel like a partnership,” Wheeler said.

Both Wheeler and Ryan immediately left the breakfast after it ended and were unable to answer KGW’s questions in person. We wanted to know where they plan to put the six, large, designated camping sites and how exactly they plan to move the more than 5,000 homeless people living on Portland's streets.

Some in attendance, like Juliana Lukasik from Central City Concern, were also unsure about these details.

“We are concerned about it, I think, as is everybody in the community. Where are they going to go? How is that going to affect those communities?” she asked.

Another concern for her was if the city has enough behavioral health specialists needed for this plan.

“Our number one challenge facing us — and it’s going to be our number one challenge for a long time — is workforce. We are short in the state of Oregon 35,000 behavioral health workers. Until we have a really, really solid workforce behind behavioral health, these problems are going to be very difficult to solve,” Lukasik said.

Wheeler has asked Multnomah County to delay its budget vote until the new year. He said at Thursday’s breakfast forum that what they have in place now won’t support his plan. He’s also requesting a financial review of the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services.

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