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New "Safe Sleep Policy" Legalizes Homeless Camping in Portland, Oregon

Several tents are pitched underneath trees along a Portland street. Tents pitched along a Portland street

Portland's homeless population has been on a steady increase the past several years, eventually forcing the city to declare a homeless emergency at the end of 2015. This gave the city power to waive land-use restrictions so they could convert existing buildings into emergency shelter space and start construction of more permanent affordable housing. However, with the homeless population continuing to rise and concern for the safety of the individuals living on the streets, the mayor's office recently instituted a new ordinance that has sparked major controversy; allowing people to legally camp overnight along city sidewalks and public spaces.

The new "Safe Sleep Policy" is a result of a two-pronged reality, the homeless population is increasing, while the total number of shelter beds are declining. The city estimates about 2,000 people are now sleeping on the streets. With the total number of shelter beds at 478, this leaves most homeless citizens to find their own accommodation, a daunting task for the most vulnerable section of the population. Mayor Charles Hayes recognizes this noticeably large gap and has instituted the new policy in order to temporarily address this issue. This policy allows an individual or a group of up to six people to camp on a city sidewalk or city right of way overnight from 9:00 PM until 7:00 AM. The camps must then be dismantled. The idea is to keep the homeless population from gathering together and setting up larger, more permanent encampments, which recently have become sites for fires, violence, and drug use.

A small makeshift tent made of tarps and a patio umbrella is set up against a building. Tents such as these are allowed on sidewalks under the new Safe Sleep Policy

Until recently, the city has a long-standing use of a "sweeping" policy for homeless encampments, where police march through these camps, forcing residents to disassemble their tents and move somewhere else. In May, police did a sweep of the Springwater Corridor Trail, a 40-mile recreational greenway in the Portland Area which has recently seen an influx of homeless encampments. Sources estimate that the sweep kicked out over 400 homeless individuals, which satisfied many users of the greenway who were fearing for their safety. This satisfaction does not transfer over to the people who were living there, who still need a safe place to sleep. The mayor's office is hoping the new policy would help alleviate this issue.

Many experts have praised the "Safe Sleep" policy. Homeless advocate and leading attorney for Portland's office of the Oregon Law Center Monica Goracke called it "the most comprehensive, progressive, and deeply rational proposal that has ever come from city hall on this issue." However, this sentiment is not shared by everyone. A group of businesses and neighborhood alliances has recently filed a lawsuit to challenge the mayor's decision. They claim the mayor does not have the authority to initiate the policy, and it should have been put to a vote with the Portland City Council. In addition, they are saying it also violates many of the city's ordinances that regulate the use of sidewalks, despite the fact that the emergency declaration does have the legal ability to waive land-use regulations. Although the mayor's office have not made any public statements regarding the lawsuit, in a recent interview Hales stated that the policy is not meant to be a permanent solution, but only temporary while the city works to add more permanent housing and shelter beds.

Adding more shelter beds is easier said than done. This costs money and requires existing infrastructure, both of which the city is in short supply. The shelters that have opened since the emergency declaration last fall have begun shutting down. When the emergency declaration was declared, the city converted the Jerome F. Sears building in Southwest Portland into a temporary shelter for homeless women. It was decided that the building would act as a shelter for 6 months, and then be turned into an emergency-operations center. With the 6-month deadline approaching, the city met with local neighbors to propose a 3-month extension in order to ensure the 165 women who lived in the facility would not be forced back onto the street. The neighborhood alliance opposed the extension. Luckily, when the Sears Building was shut down, the women were relocated to another temporary shelter, the Peace Shelter provided by the local family-owned real-estate company Menashe Properties. However, this shelter closed in July, and once again, the residents were forced to move.

The solution instituted by Mayor Hales, although progressive and compassionate towards the homeless population, still does nothing to address the underlying issue of homelessness. Moving these populations around does nothing to provide them a stable foundation from which they can try and gain employment, save money and eventually find their own place to call home. And in a city where housing affordability is skyrocketing, the homeless population will only increase as residents are priced out and evicted from their homes. It seems officials understand the challenges that lie ahead. Over $30 million from the city's latest budget has been earmarked to address the housing and homelessness issues. If this money is spent more on temporary shelter beds and less on effective and permanent programs to address homelessness, the Portland camping season could extend well beyond the warm summer months.

In what ways does your city address homelessness? Would you support an effort to legalize street camping in your city? Share your thoughts and your city's stories in the comments area below.

Credits: Data linked to sources. Images by Kevin Gooley.