PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The tents sprawling on downtown and residential sidewalks across Portland, Ore., are fueling a debate playing out in cities across the country as the U.S. homelessness crisis explodes: Should camping be everywhere be banned except in sanctioned websites?
Republican-run states, including Texas and Missouri, have passed laws in recent years that ban street camping while diverting money from affordable housing projects into short-term housing.
Now, after decades of fighting homelessness, some progressive West Coast cities are considering similar plans. Portland City Council members will vote Thursday on a proposal to create at least three large designated campgrounds and ban the rest of the roughly 700 camps currently scattered across the city. More than 3,000 people are homeless in Portland, a 50% increase from 2019, the proposal said.
“The scale and depth of our city’s homeless crisis is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said last month while unveiling the plan. “We need to bring our dispersed, vulnerable, homeless population closer to the services they need.”
But opponents say the camping restrictions effectively criminalize homelessness and fail to address its root causes.
“As visible homelessness has increased, so has public and other pressure on elected officials and others in positions of authority to address this problem,” said Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. “What is emerging is that the way to immediately address what is at its core an affordable housing issue is to try to remove people from the public eye.”
Rising homelessness in Portland has become a major concern for the vast majority of residents and has led to legal action. A group of people with disabilities has sued the city over tents blocking sidewalks and making them inaccessible.
Portland’s proposal would establish at least three designated campgrounds, with an initial capacity of about 150 people each. They would have 24-hour administration and access to services such as food, sanitation, waste collection, and treatment for mental health and substance abuse.
Social workers would direct people living on the streets to the designated campsites. Those who refuse could be cited, but the citations could be waived if the person is on a diversionary program that would require mental health or substance abuse treatment rather than jail time.
Denver, Colorado, and Austin, Texas also have ordinances in place that both prohibit public camping and allow sanctioned campgrounds. Denver has opened several “safe outdoor areas” since 2020, offering tents, food and other services. In Austin, the Esperanza community is a sanctioned camp serving approximately 150 people and currently constructing 200 individual shelters.
The Cicero Institute, which authored the model legislation that inspired many of the recent no-camping directives, says creating specific areas where camping is allowed may be a quicker fix for cities than building affordable housing.
“One of the biggest problems sanctioned camping is trying to solve is the incredible difficulty of getting more shovels into the ground to provide shelter or other types or services to the homeless,” said Judge Glock, senior director of policy and the group Research.
“The answer can’t possibly be that these cities will wait two or three decades and we will build enough permanent housing. In the meantime, we will see tens of thousands of people dying on the streets,” Glock said.
However, many homeless advocates say that a housing first approach is the only way to address the underlying factors that cause homelessness.
“Rounding up people who have nowhere else to go is not only cruel and impractical, but forcing them into huge camps cannot possibly be a culturally competent or just situation,” Mark Guzman, founder of nonprofit food organization MealsonUsPDX, told a controversial city councillor from Portland session last week.
“If you really want to end homelessness, the only way forward is to live first,” said Guzman, who said he has previously experienced homelessness himself. “People need love, compassion and resources to escape a situation of homelessness.”
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. Follow Claire on Twitter.