Homeless camps put Portland in peril

Portland Oregonian/OregonLive

There can be no question that Portland City Hall has embarked on a huge social experiment by inviting homeless people to sleep in a multitude of public spaces as long as they don’t pitch tents on sidewalks. The driving thought is that the city show compassion towards an estimated 1,900 homeless folks while pressing ahead with an ambitious plan to build permanent housing — a feat that could take years and tens of millions of dollars but, if sufficient in scale, could save folks from lives of debility and danger. No American city has figured out what to do about burgeoning homelessness, in some places at record levels, and so Portland has no reason not to try to buy time as it fashions a lasting solution.

But the experiment has gone off-course and needs immediate correction. A recent shooting near a makeshift encampment of tents lining the sidewalk on Southeast Pine Street is a case in point. A homeless man took a bullet in the back at the encampment, perilously situated near St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and the Escuela Viva Community School, a preschool. It’s a matter of luck, owing to an estimated incident time of 5 a.m., that no children were nearby. It’s a matter of dumb luck, or perhaps perpetrator skill, that the bullet didn’t stray.

This is what failure looks like. The City Council was correct in declaring a housing emergency last year, and Mayor Charlie Hales showed daring this year in recognizing he has no political skin to lose in ordering a risky approach that could help the city, in partnership with Multnomah County, make life a bit easier for those without shelter. But an invitation to sleep in expanded public areas without a clear directive to enforce rules against illegal camping has backfired. The failure heightens risk not only to the homeless but to residents who’ve never had to navigate the homeless, often beset by mental illness or addiction or both. The situation is untenable when children are, or could be, involved.

The city’s best chance of success is that it not forsake what works: walkable neighborhoods, a navigable downtown.

Angel Falconer’s daughter has attended the Escuela-Viva for three years. She wrote a letter to Hales on the morning of the shooting and later shared it with The Oregonian/OregonLive. Her words capture the horror of any parent but map a rational way forward for the city:

“Your safe sleep policy does not allow the kind of camps that have become a permanent feature at SE 11th and Pine. Our preschoolers are not equipped to come face-to-face with the harsh realities that we have seen in the camps around Escuela-Viva: substance abuse, mental illness, and violence. Do you know about the ‘The Star Pose’? Our children have been instructed that when they see something dangerous on the playground or sidewalk — a syringe, a used condom, broken glass — they are supposed to stand over it with their arms and legs spread out wide, like a star, and holler for help from a teacher. I don’t think any of the children have found a gun yet. We can be compassionate and also protect our children at the same time. Please create a no-camping zone around our school and enforce it.”

Yes twice: The homeless need help, but so, too, do Portlanders who can wake up to find strangers at the edge of the front yard.

Josh Alpert, Hales’ chief of staff, was frank last week with the editorial board of The Oregonian/OregonLive in his appraisal of the situation and of the reaction of many to it: “This is emotional and scary. We’re trying to build our way out of this. But what do we do today?” Separately, he noted that the homeless population in Portland is increasingly “activated,” in some measure by the leaders of previous Occupy movements, to engage with neighbors in the areas in which they choose to sleep and to attend neighborhood meetings. That creates an entirely new social dynamic, however, and one that is, Alpert said, positive.

But when weapons are present, the today part trumps aspiration. The best outcome of any new policy is the safe one. For that reason alone Portland must disperse illegal tent camps — just as it has to an estimated 18 large tent camps since January, the most recent last week at the eastern terminus of the Hawthorne Bridge — but do so more frequently and consistently. Meanwhile, the city should immediately create wide perimeters around schools to keep the homeless at a distance, ensuring children are unchallenged and clear of obvious risk. Private day care centers and preschools are, under state law, exempt from school-zone classification, a potential complication, but the city should explore common-sense practices in attempting to protect the young immediately proximate to them.

Portland’s compassion, if not channeled to produce smart outcomes, could be its undoing. The city’s best chance of succeeding in this experiment is that it not forsake what already works: walkable neighborhoods and a navigable downtown. Judicious, consistent enforcement is the key.