Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued an emergency order earlier this month to ban camping near busy roadways, the first step in what he says will be a series of executive actions he plans to take to address the city’s homelessness crisis.
The camping ban came on the heels of a report from the Portland Bureau of Transportation that showed 70% of pedestrians who were killed by cars last year were people experiencing homelessness. But as the mayor noted, he had been working on this ban even before the PBOT report.
Several advocacy groups signed a letter decrying the policy and suggested alternatives, such as reducing speed limits or increasing funding for Portland Street Response.
OPB reached out to the mayor’s office to see if he wanted to talk about his new emergency order. We got no response. Katrina Holland did agree to come on OPB’s “Think Out Loud®” to talk about it. Holland is the executive director of JOIN, a nonprofit that serves people experiencing homelessness.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Dave Miller: When did you first hear about this emergency declaration?
Katrina Holland: I believe we received notification via email. Somebody heard that it was coming out maybe the day before or a couple of days before.
Miller: What went through your mind?
Holland: The only way to describe it is heartbreaking. Prior to my current job at JOIN, I was working at Community Alliance of Tenants and I remember specifically working with a couple of transportation rights advocacy groups to talk about the dangers of lack of sidewalks and other things that created safety hazards for pedestrians. And I just keep thinking about the myriad of proposals that were brought forth back then —five or six years ago — that weren’t implemented over these last five or six years and I’m disappointed that our houseless neighbors are the ones taking the beating for this.
Miller: I haven’t seen too many clear numbers that could help us understand the people who would be most affected by this emergency order. Do you have a sense, even a ballpark figure, for the number of people who are currently living alongside these specific roadways in Portland right now?
Holland: It changes from day to day. I don’t know the specific numbers, but what I can say is transportation corridors are normally closer to some of the basic daily services that folks need for going to the bathroom or grabbing some food or getting some water or some of the basics and so, to know that they won’t have access to those, it’s going to be sad. It’s just sad
Miller: We asked folks on Facebook for their responses to this emergency order and we got two striking comments from different people using the same word. David Martin wrote, “I can’t imagine who would advocate for allowing people to sleep in the mud next to a freeway. It is completely inhumane.” Taylor Taylor wrote, “The policy is terrible and inhumane. The solution to homelessness is not shuffling them around and disrupting their lives. We need permanent housing with no draconian requirements about drug usage so people can reestablish their lives and get back on their feet without constant fear of becoming homeless again if they slip into drug usage.” I’m curious what you make of these two comments, both using the word “inhumane,” but arguing for exactly different policies.
Holland: The bottom line is the solution to houseleseness is housing, right? People having an opportunity for stable housing has by far, as the research has shown over and over again over the past several decades, is one of the most successful ways to get folks back into stability and back into positive journeys in their lives. Sweeps and other things just cause more harm. I feel like we are hamsters running on a hamster wheel of just doing the same things over and over and over again, while having solutions at our fingertips and not really taking advantage of those. Bottom line, I will say this, Dave: the person who’s looking at somebody sleeping in squalor or in the mud is right to feel a sense of compassion and fear for that person’s well being. It is not humane that we have people living on the streets period. However, it is also inhumane to take people away from the basic services that they may have found to address their daily routines for basic needs. And here’s what I mean. Let’s just picture for a moment that you yourself are houseless — there’s a series of unfortunate events that are outside of your control, you’ve gotten sick, you’ve had a disability or you’ve gotten an accident and you can’t work as much, you end up losing your house. The very basics of sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, being connected in community are now gone. You can’t refrigerate your food. You can’t make a decision on whether or not you’re going to go pee or poop at your discretion because you don’t have a toilet anymore. You don’t have a place to quickly grab food when you’re hungry. You have to plan that throughout your day. And if you find a space in your community with people who help you feel safe, if that’s robbed from you, how are you supposed to address those basic needs and what mental state is that going to put you in? You’ve already lost control in your basic everyday. You don’t have a house anymore. You’ve lost control for how you’re going to use the bathroom and do all these basic services. And now you have somebody telling you that you can’t be in the space that you’ve managed to find some semblance of routine and control to maintain your humanity. What is that going to do to your mental stability?
Miller: Let me put it this way. I mean, could you also though, look at this policy, this emergency declaration, as a kind of harm reduction strategy? If in the short term, there are going to be people living unsheltered in Portland, the theory would be that it would be better for them to be doing so in a park or near a quiet street rather than a highway where people are driving 80 mph. What do you make of that argument?
Holland: It’s not true. Most of the time when people go to parks, they’re harassed. Most of the time when you find a quiet or safe space in a neighborhood, you’re harassed by your neighbors because you’re not welcome there. I can understand why people would think that’s the case, but I personally — JOIN is in a residential neighborhood — have experienced drivers splashing me on purpose while I’m talking to a houseless person who’s next to our gate.
Miller: In other words, it’s a mistake to focus too much on the posted speed limit of a road. You’re saying there are other ways to assess, um, the risk to people who are experiencing homelessness that don’t simply fall under the 60 mile an hour speed limit?
Holland: Absolutely. And to be fair, I am not in any way saying that our neighbors who are houseless need to stay in high-traffic corridors and subject themselves to the dangers. That’s unrealistic. But to force them out, if it’s a place that works for them with no other options that are healthy, that encourage mental stability, that encourage moving in a positive direction, that allow them to live with dignity and humanity, is also not a solution. There are so many opportunities that we at JOIN have advocated for that the mayor and other city councilors and county officials just ignore because it would be controversial.
Miller: What are you thinking about in particular?
Holland: So for example, one of the things that we’ve been pushing for a while is a master leasing concept. At JOIN, we have a partnership with about 200 different landlords who make vacancies available to us for our houseless neighbors. Some of those we have very specific relationships with where we’re able to actually rent the unit ourselves as an agency and place folks into that, busting as many barriers as we possibly can. We’ve done that for some years. It’s a small program; it’s not adequately funded. And other organizations do this too. We’re attempting to try to scale that up because if you go on apartments.com right now, there are 7,000 units available. Can you imagine if we just communicate with our private property owners to say, what are some incentives that you’d be willing to accept or what are some rents that you’d be willing to accept to guarantee your income for a year, two or three years, just so we can give a housing opportunity next week for our houseless neighbors?
Miller: This gets to one of the quotes from the mayor at a recent press conference. He said this: “There has been a systematic bias toward the long-term development of affordable housing. And for some time, I’ve been something of a lone voice saying we also need to act with urgency.” This was part of the mayor’s defense of his emergency declaration. I’m curious what your response is to that statement.
Holland: That’s positioning. Nobody has ever said that we have a specific bias toward longer-term solutions. What we have said is that it is more economically sustainable and good management of public funds to invest in things that are going to end homelessness. However, we also recognize that there needs to be a myriad of options to address people in their current situations right now to meet them where they’re at, but in a way that allows them the dignity of being a human and maintaining some of their autonomy. That is what people have been saying. So, it is a communications message. It is positioning to make himself look good. What he’s saying is just flat out not true.
Miller: Mayoral advisor Sam Adams about two weeks ago sent a memo to officials at Multnomah County, at the Metro regional government and the governor’s office. One of his ideas is to force up to 3,000 unsheltered people into giant, new group shelters staffed by unarmed National Guard members and social work grad students from PSU. Do you know if this idea has gotten any traction?
Holand: From my understanding, I think it was formed in a bubble. I specifically got an email from the dean of the School of Social Work who said, ‘We’ve never even heard of this concept, and we would never support it.’ And we’ve also heard from some other advocates who said, ‘Using the National Guard, we might as well just round people up and put them in concentration camps again.’ History has proven that’s not good. We don’t need to repeat that history just because we don’t want to see people on the streets. Placing someone in a congregate shelter with 999 other strangers is not going to help end homelessness, and it’s not going to help people get in a in a positive space to get back on their feet again. That’s that’s asking for trouble. Has anybody ever wondered why we haven’t heard the shelters who actually operate these these shelters advocating for these? Has anybody ever wondered why some of the biggest providers of shelter in Portland have been advocating for longer term solutions? Is anybody not curious why they haven’t jumped on this bandwagon of mass shelters? They know it doesn’t help end homelessness. Back in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, we specifically moved to “housing first” as a methodology for serving our neighbors because math sheltering was not working. It creates a cycle of homelessness and a revolving door of people going from the streets to shelter, from the streets to shelter, all the while, creating long-lasting trauma that makes it harder for them to be successful in housing once we do place them. The research is very clear.
Miller: More and more money in the last couple of years has been going towards both affordable housing and to emergency shelters. But homelessness seems to be a bigger issue now in Portland and a number of other West Coast cities than it’s ever been. What is it going to take to have that be truly different in the short term?
Holland: People bring up this conversation a lot and there’s a giant elephant in the room that nobody wants to acknowledge — the inflow to houselessness has not been adequately addressed. Houselessness is a systemic failure of an economic system that has prioritized profits over people. I know people are going to get all up in arms about that, but the reality is the housing costs in the last year have increased by 30%. People, over the last two years, have lost their ability to pay rent and pay their mortgages. And even though we had a moratorium, we heard story after story after story of housing providers doing off-the-record negotiations with their tenants to get them to move out so that they could keep their deposit or they could avoid an eviction on the record once the moratorium ended. Those people left. They had nowhere to go. Houselessness has increased substantially over the last several years because we’ve been in a massive pandemic and a horrible financial system for the last several decades and nobody has been interested in trying to address this massive inflow with regulations, with incentives, with dollars. It’s been ignored, like, “oh, well, that just happens.” Shelters and housing placement is the end of the spectrum. We need to do more work upstream. And there have been I don’t know how many countless ideas that I have heard about and personally participated and advocating in that folks have not been willing to entertain because it’s controversial.