Unconscious bias remains firmly rooted in society’s views of homelessness.

Nearly 167 years ago to the day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wrote a letter home to his wife that informed his perspective on slavery: “I think it a greater evil to the white than to the black race … The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially and physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race, and I hope will prepare and lead them to better things.”

In a racial context, such statements are generally abhorred today. Yet these themes persist in the normalized discourse surrounding present-day homelessness: that the more privileged group is the greater victim of oppression and the oppressed; that violence and abuse are for the good of the victim; that the oppressor knows what is best for the oppressed without any consultation or regard for their input.

Embedded within the policy of forcible eviction and criminalization of unhoused individuals lie all of these themes. We, the peninsula district councilors, write to clarify that our disagreement with the policy lies in the harm caused by the act of forcible eviction itself. It isn’t that we believe people should sleep outside; it isn’t that we deny that crimes of desperation take place within vulnerable populations; it is not that we misunderstand the number of available shelter beds. We object to the strategy of coercing individuals into shelter by forcible eviction and/or threat of prosecution on moral and practical grounds.

We know that the number one barrier cited for resistance to accepting shelter is loss of autonomy. This is a barrier that can never be addressed by a large, one-size-fits-all institution. Evicting people with this concern from their tents will not shelter them. It will only displace them, separate them from their belongings, remove what thin cover from the elements they had, disconnect them from outreach workers and increase their anxiety. A slower course of social work is necessary. Eviction is counterproductive to that end.

We mean no criticism of city staff who we know are enforcing existing ordinances and administrative policies.


But the laws are antiquated. The City of Portland’s administrative “no camping” policy largely derives its authority from the “loitering” ordinance. Laws that prohibit loitering saw their first iteration in 16th-century England. Then termed “vagrancy,” these laws were brought to the U.S. by colonists and effectively criminalized poor and marginalized people. They saw acceleration in the black codes and Jim Crow laws as an ubiquitous means of punishment to maintain social segregation and hierarchy. An approach to homelessness built on enforcing the city’s anti-loitering law is certainly outdated for the type of city that Portland is trying to become, where Portland City Council, year after year, has identified equity-based policymaking as a top goal.

The city council needs space to research and deliberate its values with regard to the city’s approach to encampments and unhoused individuals. We need to ask and answer questions like: “Do we agree with the practice of sweeping encampments?” and: “What resources are we willing to invest in supporting people living outdoors?” and: “Should port-a-potties and other sanitation supports be considered a new ‘core service’ of the city?” and: “Do smaller, trauma-informed shelter approaches better address remaining barriers to accepting shelter?” and: “What strategy can we agree on for building capacity from shelter, to transitional housing, to permanent housing?”

The council’s Health and Human Services Committee is slated to do that high-level deliberation under Chair April Fournier’s leadership. Until that work is complete – until the council has a meaningful opportunity to adopt new recommendations for the city’s approach to encampments and unhoused individuals – we advocate for a pause on the enforcement of the “no camping” administrative policy.

In the meantime, the health and safety of Portland residents, housed and unhoused, will be better supported by proactive rather than reactive approaches.

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