By Thacher Schmid
It’s possible the city of Portland has never been as focused on homelessness as it is now, in the twilight of Mayor Charlie Hales’ tenure.
Then again, there’s never been as pressing a need, four months after City Council declared a “state of emergency.” Neighborhoods across the city have watched tents and sleeping bags popping up in unprecedented numbers.
“Last year,  calls for service [related to homelessness] surpassed traffic complaints, which historically have been No. 1,” Police Chief Larry O’Dea told a Feb. 8 council work session.
Northwest Portland has 8 percent of the city’s homeless, or 125 people, according to the “point in time” January 2015 street and shelter count, though a broader category called “Downtown/Old Town/Pearl” holds another 28 percent, or 448 people. The biannual homeless count’s data has grown steadily since at least 2007, and jumped last year, suggesting the current number is probably higher since those numbers were compiled.
“What I’ve noticed is the population has jumped,” said Tara, 33.
She’s been living on the streets for two years since a divorce, she said, recently in a small tent cluster at Northwest 19th and Thurman. Her camp is near the place where Dignity Village, now a well-known model of homeless self-governance, sprang up in 2001.
“The homeless population is growing a lot,” agreed James, 47, at a different camp near Northwest 15th and Kearney. “It’s more youngsters; kids are getting thrown out of their homes.”
Hales’ chief of staff, Josh Alpert, heads an effort he calls a “whole new system,” starting with a four-point “street stabilization” plan called Safe Sleep. Alpert speaks passionately about the issue, as did mayoral candidates Jules Bailey and Ted Wheeler in the recent NW Examiner debate.
“It is a horrific issue in all regards,” Alpert said.
Under Safe Sleep, groups under six people/structures will be tolerated, Alpert said, while new city-brokered organized camps with services will form. At the same time, more strategic enforcement will break up large, unofficial camps, such as the one under the west end of the Steel Bridge, which police swept last month.
Alpert and O’Dea say criminal behaviors are most common in large, unregulated homeless camps, whereas smaller camps tend to police themselves. A look at police data on portlandmaps.com shows no clustering of criminal activity in recent months around Tara and James’ encampments. The Portland Police Bureau did not respond by deadline to a public records request for 911 data.
A day before police removed the Steel Bridge camp, there were approximately 40 tents and structures. As with the North Park Blocks last summer, there have been many complaints. A man who lives nearby at The Yards at Union Station apartments told the NW Examiner that he and others have been physically assaulted by occupants of this encampment.
“These are the gates of hell,” hollered a man seated on a park bench nearby, to no one in particular, shortly after a verbal altercation with another man that included racial slurs.
“What you’re going to see is fewer of the big camps,” Alpert said.
The city will allow smaller encampments not on sidewalks of six or fewer tents or structures andsix or fewer people—as long as tents are taken down by 7 a.m. In fact, individuals are encouraged to sleep with others in small groups because they’re less vulnerable.
The city is testing two-day storage units, Alpert says, to help motivate people to break down the tents and store them during the day. (Like many homeless people, James lost a tent during a police sweep, he said.)
Point 2 of the plan, Structured Organized Camping Program, may be the most controversial. The city is looking at allowing groups of 20 to 25 people to form organized camps that must be affiliated with a local nonprofit that serves as “camp host.” The city is looking into providing trash service, portable toilets, water—even mobile shower services, Alpert said.
Will there be any such organized campsites in Northwest Portland?
“Right now, there’s nothing on the drawing board for Northwest, other than, steadily, as we’re starting implementation,” Alpert said.
Alpert and city leaders say the long-vacant Wapato Jail is unsuitable for shelter due to problems of scale. But other ideas have shown promise: Alpert pointed to the placing of nine people from Hazelnut Grove, a semiofficial camp in Northeast Portland, into permanent housing. The city also met its goal to house 690 homeless veterans last year, Hales told the council workgroup.
Points 3 and 4 in Safe Sleep include allowing organized car and RV camping, and efforts to continue expanding shelter capacity such as the Jerome Sears National Guard building in Multnomah Village, which became a shelter this winter. Alpert described a recent meeting in that neighborhood about the Sears shelter as a “love fest.”
Managing Attorney Monica Goracke of Oregon Law Center, which provides legal services to low-income clients, called the new plan “the most comprehensive, progressive and deeply rational that has ever come from City Hall on this issue.”
But conversations with three homeless people last month served as a reminder that the best-laid plans often go awry.
“It was so cold in December,” Tara said, when asked about the winter. “Thankfully, I got in trouble and went to jail for the first time ever.”
She described herself as a former “yuppie” and “stay-at-home wife” who now mostly stays in “industrialish” sectors of Northwest—“anywhere it’s tolerated.” Like James, she said she likes the Northwest, and never goes to the east side, which has a different street “family.”
“I don’t want to do the rat race,” she said. “I don’t want to fill somebody else’s pocket.”
Five stolen rifles were discovered inside a tent near Tara’s campsite in January. In an unrelated incident this year, a shooting in a Seattle homeless camp killed two and wounded three.
Tara said she’s concerned about violence but believes she can control her situation.
“You’re only a victim if you allow yourself to be a victim,” she said. “I’ve had some close calls. Predators target the weak.”
The “industrialish” area Tara prefers extends to Forest Park. Portland Parks & Recreation spokesperson Mark Ross said park rangers made contact with three camps in Forest Park in December and January.
“When people are simply moved out of one location, they often return or move to some other public space,” Ross wrote. “Thus the problem of people living outside, and any related issues, are not solved.”
This is the dynamic Hales recently called “whack-a-mole” in a statement about the Steel Bridge sweep.
Alpert and other city leaders are confident the new plan will give police and others who contact homeless individuals a better playbook, with more effective messages about options, such as smaller groups, organized camps and more shelter space.
“We aren’t interested in hiding people or getting them out of people’s eyesight,” Alpert said. “That’s not our goal or our hope, and in a lot of ways we need people to stay here and integrate into society.”
Alpert said locations like Terminal One, north of the Fremont Bridge, could work for organized campsites.
Reintegration is important, officials believe, because after stabilizing the streets, the second major part of the city’s approach is providing permanent housing options under the multiagency A Home for Everyone initiative.
Without mentioning Dignity Village, Alpert pointed to examples in Eugene, Olympia and Madison, Wis., in which organized campsites turned into tiny house communities.
At first glance, a policy that allows small campsites and newly organized camps sounds like a kinder, gentler approach. Alpert says it is not.
“We actually believe that this is going to potentially result in more enforcement,” Alpert said. “The problem that we’ve run into is, we’ve never had the real ability to distinguish between those who require appropriate enforcement and those who just are trying to find a place to sleep.”
James’ camp—featuring six structures plus two in sleeping bags (the latter two putting it beyond compliance)—may be the kind of situation Alpert says will be left to police discretion.
James’ behavior also crosses some lines. On the streets since he was 13, with 26 years in Portland, he says he “knows everybody.” He comes off as harmless, nonthreatening.
But not everyone will be comfortable with his habits.
“I use everything,” he said. “Mostly heroin.”
He watched as a friend approached and sat down a few feet away, then cracked a smile.
“There’s dope all the time,” he said, emphasizing “all.” “We were just talking about going to get high right now.”
For her part, Tara says homeless people start using drugs because of what happens on the streets, not vice versa. “Drugs come after. It’s a tool.”
“The [police] sweeps don’t distinguish between the peaceful hobos and the punks looking for trouble,” Commissioner Steve Novick said during the February work session, attributing the quote to a homeless person. The new approach, city leaders suggest, takes a more fine-grained approach.
Scott Dolich, owner of the Bent Brick, across the street from legendary Slabtown shuttered rock club, describes the camp at James’ location as “very peaceful,” perhaps Novick’s “peaceful hobos.” But, as the NW Examiner reported last fall, neighbors complained that the North Park Blocks last summer held “punks looking for trouble.”
Dolich, who also owns the Park Kitchen on the North Park Blocks, recalls that crowd as “kind of threatening, a lot of drugs, a lot of sex.”
On Feb. 24, there was nary a tent or structure in the North Park Blocks, probably due to increased enforcement demanded by citizens who organized and got the mayor’s ear after problems erupted there last summer.
Even with new shelter space, inclusionary zoning, increases in city incentives for affordable housing, more rent assistance funding, new organized campsites and President Barack Obama’s announcement of $11 billion in new federal funding toward reducing homelessness nationally, some worry it won’t be enough.
But Alpert, who Commissioner Nick Fish joked has unwittingly become the “czar” of ordering homeless sweeps of late, is a relentless optimist. While he admits Safe Sleep will take time and at times be a bit messy, he’s convinced it’s better than the uncoordinated approach of the past, in which different city bureaus sometimes worked at cross purposes, and police and people on the streets got mixed messages.
“My goal here is—if we could do anything on this issue by the time we leave in December—to stabilize the street part of all of this, so that the new mayor and new administration can come in and not have to reinvent the wheel, go back to the drawing board or spend as much time as we’ve had to spend on trying to create the balance on the street, and instead put all of that time into housing and root causes so that they can actually start working on ending the cycle.”
“We’re kind of at a tipping point with the community,” Alpert said. “We’re slowly starting to see the Portland that we all know is there.”
Thacher Schmid works for Home Forward, the city’s housing authority, and has worked in homeless shelters and other social service programs in the past.
Visit: portlandoregon.gov/toolkit for information on city’s Homelessness Toolkit program.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote by Commissioner Steve Novick to Commissioner Dan Saltzman.