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Portland’s homelessness crisis: We can, and must, do better February 2016
By Mitch Hornecker

You may have seen some new emails in your inbox over the last few weeks from the Portland Business Alliance. These emails are part of our PDX Can Do Better campaign, an effort we’re working on to urge city leaders to act on solutions to Portland’s homeless crisis. Through this campaign, we’ve launched a new website – www.pdxcandobetter.com – and increased our email advocacy in an effort to raise awareness and instigate action among Portlanders who are concerned about our city’s homelessness crisis and the proliferation of illegal camps in neighborhoods throughout our community.

Last week, Mayor Hales announced his new “Safe Sleep Policy,” which currently prohibits tents but allows sleeping bags and tarps on all of Portland’s sidewalks between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. People who insist on using tents apparently will be directed to unspecified city rights of way and “remnant” areas, and the city apparently plans to work with nonprofits to site sanctioned tent and RV campgrounds. But these are just guesses because the mayor’s office says the “plan” is to develop the details as they go along.

The Alliance remains deeply troubled by the suggestion that camping – in sleeping bags, tents and RVs – is now somehow considered a solution. It is our position that turning a blind eye to outdoor sleeping and sanctioning camps is neither humane nor safe and certainly not a solution for the more than 2,000 people asking the city to find them a dry, safe and clean place to sleep.  Plain and simple, an ill-conceived authorization to allow outdoor sleeping and camping without a single new shelter bed added to our current inventory is not a plan, it is a failure of leadership – and it is certainly not a solution.

In fact, safety is becoming an increasing concern – especially the safety of those individuals sleeping on our streets and in open spaces. We recently learned that, according to the Portland Police Bureau, there have been 11 serious assaults (those classified as Measure 11 crimes) involving homeless individuals just since Jan. 1 of this year.  Eight of these 11 assaults were stabbings. The number of homicides involving the homeless increased to seven in 2015, up from five in 2014 and three in 2013.

Our partners at Downtown Clean & Safe see other evidence of illegal or uncivil behaviors. Since 2012, the number of used hypodermic needles recovered by Clean & Safe cleaners on downtown streets has almost tripled, peaking at 8,220 in 2015. And the number of “biohazards” cleaned up (e.g., human feces), has almost doubled to 41,291 in 2015.

The knee jerk reaction is to assume that homeless individuals are causing the chaos and associated livability issues and crimes; occasionally, but not always, that may be the case. Certainly, it is not fair to imply that all, or even most, of the people on the street are lawbreakers, and we do not believe that to be the case.  But it is clear that homeless individuals are frequently the victims of these crimes because they sleep outside. As Portlanders, we should all demand a better solution from our elected leaders.

The Alliance’s advocacy is centered on three priorities: 1) we need more humane solutions, including additional indoor shelter capacity, for people who sleep outside; 2) we need more services, like mental health and addiction treatments, for those who need them; and 3) we need to enforce the laws and have zero tolerance for illegal behavior.

We are pushing, and we urge you to join us, for more practical, humane solutions to address our homelessness crisis. We know there are solutions. We were proud to have facilitated the recent opening of the Peace Shelter, which was made possible because of the extraordinary generosity of the Barry Menashe family and the quick response from Commissioner Dan Saltzman and Transition Projects.  The Peace Shelter is a wonderful example of the generosity and compassion of our business community and the power of public/private partnerships. Additionally, Multnomah County converted a former strip club on the eastside into a shelter for women, and the city has converted an unused armory in Southwest Portland to house women and couples this winter.  These three locations are safely and humanely housing the homeless, but most of the beds they provide are temporary. 

Meanwhile, the city owns many empty or little used buildings – many of which could provide a dry, clean, safe place to sleep like the Peace Shelter.  However, even after the mayor’s declaration of a housing emergency four months ago, these buildings remain closed to the homeless and, instead, the mayor’s plan appears to “institutionalize” and normalize thousands of our fellow human beings sleeping on the streets.     

The Alliance has advocated for solutions for the homeless for years, but we made our efforts more public last summer with a change.org petition that garnered more than 3,300 signatures, many from our members as well as other concerned citizens. The sentiment we heard from the community was universal – the situation has gotten out of hand. We are continuing to grow that effort with the campaign you are seeing now. We’re urging all Portlanders to say with one voice “we can do better” and demand that city leaders act on solutions – NOW.
We make it easy to take action, and if you haven’t already, we hope you will activate your voice regarding this important issue facing our city. Send a message today to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and the City Council at www.pdxcandobetter.com.
 
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