PDX Dispatch 10.25: Introducing the Wheelerville

Ted Wheeler has announced an initiative banning camping on Portland streets and herding the homeless into “designated outdoor camping with services.”

The mayor’s resolution calls for moving the homeless to at least three designated campsites — with the first opening within 18 months of securing funding.

He didn’t specify when the funding would be confirmed or how much the measure would cost.

Under the plan, the camping sites would initially be able to serve up to 125 people and provide access to services such as food, hygiene, litter collection and treatment for mental health and substance abuse.

The city council is taking public testimony right now:

The city stopped clearing campers from the streets almost entirely in May of 2020 per CDC Covid guidelines that recommended leaving them where they are and providing them with sanitation:

  • If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.
    • Clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.
  • Encourage people staying in encampments to set up their tents/sleeping quarters with at least 12 feet x 12 feet of space per individual.
    • If an encampment is not able to provide sufficient space for each person, allow people to remain where they are but help decompress the encampment by linking those at increased risk for severe illness to individual rooms or safe shelter.
  • Work together with other community organizations and offices to improve sanitation in encampments.
  • Ensure nearby restroom facilities have functional water taps, are stocked with hand hygiene materials (soap, drying materials) and bath tissue, and remain open to people experiencing homelessness 24 hours per day.
  • If toilets or handwashing facilities are not available nearby, assist with providing access to portable latrines with handwashing facilities for encampments of more than 10 people. These facilities should be equipped with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).

Don’t tell them about the alcohol content in the hand sanitizer!

Political opposition and the rising tide of homeless have made the city’s efforts to re-establish a ban ineffective, and the situation downtown continues to deteriorate. Activists have been opposing the sweeps since long before the law was suspended for Covid. When the George Floyd riots led to the radical takeover of city politics and ensuing new levels of indulgence for violent protest and the police retreat generally, antifa and allies began physically opposing sweeps with some success.

“Stop the Sweeps” besieges City Hall, Portland 2014

Mayor Charlie Hales relaxed the ban on homeless camps back in 2016 before moving back to enforcement that summer.

In June of 2021 the Oregon Legislature, led by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek passed a law allowing camping on public lands citing the 9th Circuit Court’s Martin v Boise ruling, which holds a municipality cannot force the indigent off a given street if no shelter is available.

The bill was written in the spirit of the Martin v. Boise ruling, a 2018 U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that bans governments from criminalizing living in public spaces if the local government is not providing enough shelter beds for each homeless person. That ruling applies to other Western states, including Oregon—but cities have argued that their current practices don’t conflict with the ruling…

And on Thursday, after the bill passed, Kotek told WW, “My hope is that local governments that have not yet reckoned with the Boise decision will take the opportunity to engage in a transparent, public process to update their ordinances, find ways to expand their shelter capacity, and make the rules clear for all.”

But it’s unlikely the bill will prevent sweeps of Portland homeless camps come July 2023, when cities are required to have codified their policies and ordinances in compliance with the bill.

The city is arguing that it’s already in compliance with the Martin v. Boise ruling. And while Kotek may wish for cities to comply with a larger moral framework underlying the court ruling, that’s not what her bill mandates…

So the most likely outcome is that Portland can still sweep homeless camps from public property so long as it doesn’t arrest or fine the people living there.

The city has the right to tell vagrants to “move along” and keep out of certain areas, as cops have been doing forever, it would seem even under the law But Portland’s homeless population is too large and its homeless caretaker industry too strong for that. In the going-on three years since relaxing the sweeps antifa and allies have successfully opposed a few high-profile sweeps. The siege of “the Red House on Mississippi in late 2020 began as a homeless sweep: police attempted to clear out a foreclosed home that had become a homeless camp, antifa headquarters and nightly party terrorizing the neighborhood when they were chased off by protesters who established an autonomous zone for a time. Antifa still sells the victory as an eviction defense.

So Ted Wheeler needs to offer something to his left to take back the streets; he’s going big with a comprehensive plan to both house the homeless and build new affordable housing. Developer interests no doubt like the sound of his “moonshot” proposal to add 20,000 new affordable housing units by 2033.

Wheeler’s asked the next governor, Democrat Tina Kotek or Republican Christine Drazan, to declare a state of emergency. Drazan has agreed.

He has lined up the city council except for radical leader Jo Ann Hardesty, who is acquiescing if not supporting and will likely be voted out in November. There is no funding yet and the mayor offered no funding estimates.

A group is suing the city over violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act because so many sidewalks are impassible for those with mobility issues, bringing more pressure to bear.

Wheeler’s plan has the potential to introduce his large camps without solving the problem of homelessness on the streets, as the radicals take over the administration of the camps and still successfully oppose the “criminalization” of street camping.

Ted might want to be careful about attaching his name to this program. Shanty towns sprang up during the Great Depression and were soon dubbed “Hoovervilles” after Republican President Herbert Hoover.

Depression-era Hooverville, Library of Congress

Portland had its share and Seattle had one that lasted ten years before “succumbing to prosperity” in 1941.

Shanty village along Willamette River, Ross Island Bridge in the background, Portland Oregon, Vintage News
Portland Oregon Vintage News

Shanty towns are already making a comeback of course.

Makeshift house near freeway, Portland Oregon 2022, Untethered
Wheelerville on the edge of suburban neighborhood, Portland, Dennis Dale Untethered Livestreams

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