After a winter that saw no let-up in the number of homeless camps, Portland’s outlook for the warmer months is worrisome.

Officials have tallied at least 110 tents citywide, with about 50 of those on the Bayside Trail and the rest scattered around the city. Living conditions are generally squalid, as evidenced by the huge amounts of trash, drug paraphernalia and human feces scattered around the areas.

Parks and Public Safety personnel have done yeoman’s work trying to keep up with the situation but the demands limit their abilities to function effectively elsewhere in the city. Conditions also have become increasingly unsafe not only for park rangers and police officers but also for the campers themselves, for nearby business owners and residents and even for passers-by. City residents have become impatient about being unable to safely access many parks and public spaces.

At an emergency meeting of Portland’s Health and Human Services and Public Safety Committee on May 2, Health and Human Services Director Kristen Dow recommended creating an encampment task force of providers that would communicate with campers to extend services in a structured way, and establishing a mobile engagement center. The goal would be to assist campers in locating safe and secure housing. Efforts initially would be focused on Bayside campers in hopes of clearing that large encampment within a couple of months, at which time assistance at other encampments could resume.

An immediate problem arose when interim Police Chief Heath Gorham and Parks, Recreation and Facilities Director Ethan Hipple said that while they supported the task force proposal, Bayside campers needed to be moved elsewhere before implementing such a plan because of the extremely unsafe conditions at the encampment.

The question is: Where can they go?


One option would be to follow the lead of other communities and establish a temporary, managed cluster of small structures. The city would provide sturdy tents or other units of uniform size and a sanitation, wash and laundry station, along with 24/7 campsite managers and security guards. Secure storage would be provided for campers’ belongings. Campers would register and sign in and out as they entered and exited the property.

The Health and Human Services plan to offer services in a structured manner while assisting campers in securing safe and secure housing would be implemented at the site. With provision of such safe, sanitary and appropriate temporary shelter, the very unsafe and unsanitary and inappropriate encampments that now exist could be banned. Communities that have modeled their own versions of this approach include Missoula, Montana; Denver, and Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.

Would this be ideal? Of course not, but it would buy some time as the city’s plan to reach its goal of assisting campers to locate safe and secure housing is implemented. Also, as called for by many at the May 2 meeting, efforts to get state and federal assistance would continue. Supporting the large numbers of the unhoused who appear in Portland should not be up to us alone.

The overall goal must be to get a roof over everyone’s head and doing so will take time. As we work toward that goal, we must examine city policies and practices, especially as they relate to housing and development. For example, why do we allow developers to pay a fee in lieu of actually building affordable housing units? What more can we do to encourage construction of affordable housing, including single-room occupancy? Are there existing buildings that could be repurposed into affordable housing?

We face tough questions with no easy answers and, likely, tough choices. But one thing is certain. The status quo cannot continue. We are a city in crisis and we must find ways to shelter and ultimately house our people.

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