The unauthorized sign. (Photo: The Street Trust)
Earlier this week, people in the southeast Portland neighborhoods reported strange signs on the street. The signs promoted the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program: a partnership between the state, city and local nonprofits to make it safer and easier for children to walk, bike and wheel to school.
The only difference from an official “Safe Routes to School” sign was a statement on the bottom that read “No Camping”.
These signs – which two ODOT SRTS coordinators confirmed are not approved – come after a city of Portland ban on homeless people camping on trails safe for children to get to school. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued the ban just before the start of the school year this fall, barring people from camping in a very large portion of the Portland area.
Wheeler’s decree addressed a real concern from parents whose children attend school in areas with a lot of street and sidewalk camping, but it provoked backlash from many Portlanders, who felt it was a cruel and clumsy approach to the problem.
People who criticized the mayor’s decision pointed out that homeless people camping along the way to school are statistically much less likely to pose a danger to children on the way to school than motorists. Instead of sweeping camps and leaving lots of people without space, they should focus on making the roads safer for people traveling outside of cars.
This comes at a crucial crossroads for Portland’s homeless policy. Last week, Willamette Week reported that Wheeler plans to announce another camping ban that would apply citywide. Under that plan, homeless people would be relocated to approved 500-person camping “campuses” across the city — a similar proposal to the largely unpopular idea proposed by Mayor’s Assistant Sam Adams back in February.
Last week’s news of the proposed citywide ban didn’t seem to cause a big uproar in homeless advocacy circles. Katrina Holland, who runs nonprofit housing association JOIN, released a statement on Twitter calling the plan a political ploy and urging Portlanders not to give the news too much energy.
Portland City Council candidate Rene Gonzalez, who has focused his campaign against opponent Jo Ann Hardesty on her approach to crime and homelessness, took the potential ban as an opportunity to distress the city’s state in an alarming way for many.
In a tweet, Gonzalez called Portland “overrun and under siege” and suggested jailing those who continue to camp on the streets after bans were enforced. If Gonzalez wins a city council seat, homeless advocates fear his approach will gain momentum and produce even worse results. In recent debates and media interviews, Gonzalez has repeatedly expressed concern about people living on bike corridors such as I-205 and the Springwater ways.
Non-profit transport advocacy The Street Trust, whose logo appears on the unauthorized signs, tweeted a statement granting members permission to remove those signs on their behalf.
“We only support proven, equitable programs and policies to achieve safe school routes,” TST tweeted.
Recent stories about the benefits of programs like Sam Balto’s viral bike buses and a growing awareness of the deadly road conditions on streets like Powell Blvd (where Cleveland High School is located) have prompted many people to embrace traffic-based solutions for our largest use security problems. None of the proposed solutions by traffic advocates involve performing homeless camp sweeps.
It is unclear who put up these signs. However, the situation speaks to a growing rift between Portland advocates, elected officials and the general public over how to address the issue of people living on the public right-of-way.
Taylor has been a BikePortland employee since November 2021. She has also written for Street Roots and Eugene Weekly. Contact them at [email protected]