Paul Hooper, 42, loads his belongings into a several shopping cart while city workers clear debris from a homeless encampment alongside the Bayside Trail in May. Hooper had been camping in the area since December and has been homeless for 18 years. He said he didn’t know where he would go next. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

First of four stories. 

At a recent Portland City Council workshop on homeless encampments, hundreds of people packed the chambers to share their thoughts about the growing number of tents around the city. Some cried at the lectern as they read prepared statements. In the audience, people shook and nodded their heads emphatically. One woman refused to stop speaking and heckled the council until Mayor Kate Snyder told her she could be removed for her behavior.

Over the past year, despite the opening of the new Homeless Services Center, hundreds of tents have gone up, been taken down and gone up again around the city as people have gathered outside City Hall to protest encampment sweeps. The homelessness crisis is being felt viscerally almost everywhere in the city.

The five mayoral hopefuls know this. And they each say they have a plan to address it.

All want to work with nearby municipalities to equitably address what they see as a regional crisis that has largely fallen on Portland, and to create a stronger partnership with state government to tackle it.

But beyond that, for a group of men who largely align on major political issues, their approaches are markedly divergent.



Mark Dion said he sees this as a “short-term crisis.” If elected mayor, he would make it a priority to get people into shelters immediately, using the the court system to compel people to move into shelters.

“We need some immediate solutions that may not be perfect but move to actually address the conditions we see in these encampments,” he said.

One of the biggest hurdles the city has faced this summer has been a reluctance from those living in the encampments to go to the new Homeless Services Center. There are a number of barriers to entry, including policies that don’t allow couples to sleep together or people to use drugs on site, but some in the tents also have had bad experiences that leave them wary at other shelters.

Dion wants to charge people with minor crimes for public camping, disorderly conduct or drug use, then push the courts to drop the charges if those who have been charged agree to go into counseling, shelter, drug rehabilitation or other programs the court deems necessary.

“I wouldn’t be looking at this as a way to convict people but as a way to leverage them to where they need to go,” Dion said. ” I don’t want to face the possibility that they could freeze to death.”


Guadalupe Hernandez, 51, takes shelter in a tent in February before a blast of arctic cold came through the area. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

He said that sweeps of encampments will continue if he becomes mayor. He sees it as a public safety issue.

Still, Dion thinks the city could do a better job conducting sweeps. He’d like to make sure people’s belongings really are collected and stored, and he thinks the city could offer resources to help move large items like mattresses and tents.

Justin Costa said he also would continue the sweeps, citing public safety.

“It’s incredibly unsafe for the individuals that we claim to care about, and we need to be firm about winding these down,” Costa said.

But he has different ideas about how to ultimately get people into shelters.

“This is not going to be an issue you can arrest your way out of,” he said.


Costa said he would stick firmly to encampment sweep dates and ramp up outreach aimed at moving campers into rehab, shelters or anywhere warm. He would ask the state for support in the form of extra outreach workers. He also would reconsider expanding the Homeless Services Center’s capacity, which the council will take up for a third time its next meeting, on Nov. 13.

“The bottom line is I think that the city needs to have a plan,” Costa said. “At the end of the day, I’ll support anything that’s actually going to get five votes and get done.” He sees homelessness as both a short- and long-term problem. But, he says the long-term solutions, like building transitional housing, are years away.


Costa, Andrew Zarro and Dylan Pugh say they support the “housing first” model, which holds that getting people off the street into stable transitional housing offers the best shot at later sobriety, mental health and ultimate reentry into society. Having an address and a reliable place to stay warm, protect belongings and sleep safely, they believe, sets people up to begin counseling or treatment and counseling and look for work.

The problem, Costa says, is that there currently is not enough transitional housing in Portland to establish a housing first model right now, and people in encampments can’t wait years for those much-needed units to be built.

Pugh would like to build 500 additional housing first units. He says funding could come from a combination of existing emergency shelter funding and a new local corporate income tax.


“There is an enormous amount of revenue flowing through Portland, but we don’t have the ability to capture it right now,” he said.

Huston Commons in Portland, a housing first community that offers permanent living with support services for people who are chronically homeless. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Zarro doesn’t think transitional housing is years away here.

Should he become mayor, Zarro plans to build 100 efficient tiny homes that each could go up in a day. He modeled the proposal on one to house asylum seekers that the Greater Portland Council of Governments put forth about a year ago.

Zarro estimates that each unit would cost about $44,000, paid out of the city’s housing trust fund – which had nearly $9 million at the start of August – or money the state set aside for building transitional and affordable housing.

The people living in those units, he said, would be provided, through the city’s nonprofit partners, with support for problems including mental illness and addiction.

“We could do this, and Portland taxpayers wouldn’t be affected,” said Zarro, who believes the program could get underway quickly and prevent further encampment sweeps. Until then, he supports increasing the police presence in the encampments to make sure campers and neighbors are safe.


He acknowledges his tiny-home plan could be slowed by the need to rezone potential sites. He also understands that some Portlanders might object to this type of housing going up in their neighborhoods.

“This needs to be an equitable approach. There would have to be community input” Zarro said. “It would need to be ‘Listen, people want solutions. That means you got to roll up your sleeves and be a part of it, put your fingerprints on this.’ ”

Pious Ali agrees that community support will be crucial in tackling homelessness, but he sees it a bit differently.

Ali says as mayor he would prioritize working with – and funding – local nonprofits that provide housing-first units, mental health services and addiction counseling. He has his eye on the state opioid settlement money as potential funding for those services.

But Ali recognizes that the homeless population is not a monolith.

“Different groups have different needs and we need to tailor programs that will meet those different needs,” he said.



Ali wants to rely on the outreach workers who already have built strong relationships in the encampments to convince people to move on to whatever next step is best for them. He believes that first step will often be the shelter, which could lead to longer-term housing, rehab or mental health facilities – a determination that could made at the shelter, he said.

People tour the men’s dormitory at the Homeless Services Center in the Riverside neighborhood of Portland in March. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

In the long term, Ali said he would like to see more transitional housing. But like Costa, he thinks that will take time.

“We aren’t going to build a house within 24 months,” he said.

Ali would like to work with nearby cities and towns to find homeless Portlanders places to live because finding affordable housing in Portland is so hard.

He would not continue sweeps as mayor, he said, while he worked on these plans. But he would like to increase the police presence.


“We cannot sweep our way out of this. It’s a crisis we are having all over the country,” he said. “You sweep here, they’re just going to end up somewhere else.”

Ali hopes that most people will move off the street with more outreach and that increased policing might discourage many campers from congregating in dangerous settings.

Pugh would like to do something different. He’d like the city to sanction an encampment somewhere on municipal land with bathrooms, dumpsters and clean drinking water.

“These are individuals who have been betrayed by people in power in a systematic way, probably throughout their whole lives. How are we going to expect people to go into a situation that is run by the city if their experience with the city has been having their belongings thrown in a dumpster or their house bulldozed?” Pugh said of the city shelter.

Portland Police Major Jason King rouses a sleeping man as city workers load a dump truck with refuse from a homeless encampment along the Bayside Trail in May. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

He also would bring in police, medics and social services to offer support and safety directly where people are camping. He says the sanctioned encampment would not permit drug use, but he would like to see the city open a safe-injection site somewhere nearby.

If elected mayor, Pugh said he would spend a lot of time at the sanctioned encampment himself.


“I want people to feel like they can trust the mayor and trust the city – and once you build that seed of trust, it grows,” he said.

Over time, Pugh said he would like to create a centralized database with information about each homeless person in the city, including how they became homeless, what services they might need and where it would be likely to find them. He says this would help the city move away from confusing, often contradictory anecdotal evidence and toward approaches rooted in reality.

Ultimately, council votes would be required to jumpstart any of these plans. The new mayor will have just one vote of nine on the council, and while he will have the power to bring forth a proposal, it will stay just that without group consensus.

Tomorrow: Affordable housing 

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. 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.