Individuals for Portland proposes poll measure to eradicate outside tenting

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Homeless camp in North Portland near the N Rosa Parks Way exit on I-5, October 11, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Advocacy group People for Portland has proposed a November ballot measure that would divert the bulk of the money from Metro’s 2020 homeless assistance campaign to shelters and force people living on the streets to move into the shelters.

If the measure were passed as it is currently drafted, the measure would mark a sharp departure from the region’s current homelessness strategy, which prioritizes housing at the expense of securing permanent housing for people.

The measure would require at least three-quarters of the taxpayers’ money from Metro’s assistive housing service measure to be channeled into emergency shelters. This ratio would remain in place until each county has enough beds to house all of the homeless in the area and each community “enforces its own anti-camping ordinances.”

It is not immediately clear how this measure under Martin v. Boise would work, a landmark case that found cities couldn’t enforce their anti-camping rules unless they had an adequate number of shelters for all homeless people.

The Metro Homeless Service measure imposed a 1% tax on high earners in Washington, Clackamas and Multnomah counties. It is expected to generate approximately $250 million annually for assistive housing services — services that help people at risk of homelessness stay in their shelters. These include case management, rental assistance and housing.

In recent months there has been much speculation about the ultimate goals of People For Portland, a largely anonymously funded campaign. Lead political advisers Kevin Looper and Dan Lavey presented the effort in August 2021, saying they want to “make politicians listen more” to voters through public polls and a mass email campaign.

Political advisor Kevin Looper has helped lead People for Portland, an initiative that now wants to force people living outdoors in the metro area to seek shelter.

Jeff Mapes/OPB

Many were skeptical, insisting the group had more muscular targets. This camp of skeptics seemed to have been proven right on Friday when People for Portland submitted the ballot proposal titled Everyone Deserves Safe Shelter. In addition to diverting funds from Metro’s homeless service, the proposal would require Metro to conduct an annual audit of the use of funds from its operation. People for Portland’s effort would also ban anyone with conflicts of interest from serving on a funds oversight committee.

Finally, it would allow any Metro resident to sue the government if they believe the People for Portland measure is not being enforced. The plaintiffs could recover their legal fees.

The measure goes to the heart of an ongoing debate in the city over whether to prioritize creating shelters or permanent shelters for people affected by homelessness. People For Portland has long called for officials to expand housing options, arguing the status quo of roadside tents is inhumane. Housing advocates, providers and elected officials have been wary of pouring too much money into shelters, arguing that prioritizing housing is the only true way to end homelessness. They say People For Portland’s plan won’t address the region’s deepening homelessness crisis and will likely solve just one problem for Portland residents: signs of dire poverty that line many city blocks.

“Shelters don’t end homelessness,” said Angela Martin, one of the main architects behind the Metro Homeless Service 2020 measure. “It’s an expensive hold.”

Martin worked with People for Portland’s Kevin Looper to pass the 2020 Metro Homeless Service Measure. Looper has since become one of the measure’s loudest critics, as officials and homeless providers have moved too slowly to get the money into the hands of people who desperately need it.

In a statement, the group framed their voting action as an attempt to address the “inhumanity, misery and death among the thousands of people who live vulnerable in the Portland area.”

According to a Metro spokesman, the money from the Metro measure has provided 1,640 emergency shelters, housed 456 people in permanent shelters and provided 1,406 people with eviction prevention assistance.

Martin said many of those people face eviction if the People for Portland measure is passed because dollars keeping people in homes would be diverted.

“The moment we have to divert 75% of the funds just for shelter, we need to start evicting people we already have in permanent shelters,” she said.

In announcing its voting action, People For Portland joins a number of advocacy groups that have sprung up over the past two years and are determined to reduce the footprint of homeless camps, which have increased during the pandemic. In Austin, Texas, a GOP district chair and a Democratic activist teamed up to create an advocacy group called Save Austin Now. This group put a measure on the ballot last May to reintroduce a ban on outdoor camping and fines those who failed to go to a shelter. In Sacramento, California, voters are considering a ballot proposal that would ban outdoor camping and allow residents to sue the city if they don’t clean up campgrounds.

The People of Portland must collect 51,000 signatures to pass the measure in November’s vote.