It would be hard to imagine a more successful protest than the two-week-old Sleep Out in Portland City Hall Plaza.

The presence of about 100 people who are homeless or tenuously housed – living in public under conditions that have been hidden from most city residents – has hammered home a message more powerfully than hundreds of letters to the mayor or comments at City Council meetings could ever do.

It is that people in this city are suffering, living in unsafe, undignified conditions that make escaping deep poverty nearly impossible. It starts with a shortage of affordable housing, and it is compounded by ineffective services for people living with mental illness and substance abuse. And COVID-19 makes a bad situation intolerable.

The activists say they are staying put in front of City Hall until their demands are met, and they have proved their resilience by holding their positions through a heat wave and a tropical storm. But this strategy may be at the end of its usefulness.

It’s beyond question that the protest has put pressure on the city government to take on housing and homelessness with a new sense of urgency. But there is also pressure on elected officials and city staff to address perceived public safety and public health threats associated with the encampment. The demonstrators risk making their presence the city’s biggest problem, rather than the underlying issues that they have been so successful at presenting.

What happens next will require uncommon political dexterity on all sides. The protesters will need to figure out what would allow them to declare victory and retreat to a safer, more stable place. City officials will have to credibly commit to the protesters that they will not forget about their issues if the tents come down, and that they will follow through on their commitments without the encampment in public view.

The protesters’ demands are reasonable but not readily achievable. They include things, like a moratorium on evictions, that can be done only by the state and not the city. They also demand the creation of affordable housing in Portland, which is an ongoing process that takes years to complete.

The city has the harder job if this encampment is going to end peacefully. Homelessness and the affordable-housing shortage are not new issues, and the city has tried to address them, but progress has been slow. Two years ago, City Manager Jon Jennings proposed replacing the crowded Oxford Street Shelter with a new homeless shelter, spawning a yearlong fight over where it would go. The council finally chose a site on Riverside Street, but the project has not broken ground.

The city continues to attract people from other parts of the state where there are fewer job opportunities, but many jobs in Portland don’t pay enough to keep people housed. A Portland resident would need to make $22.88 an hour to afford a one-bedroom apartment in the city, putting the rent just out of reach to the median wage earner, according to a study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition. 

The conditions outside City Hall cannot continue much longer. But the conditions that brought the protesters out should not be forgotten.

 

 

 

 


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.