Swept Under the Rug
Portland is dealing with a homelessness crisis and many don’t want to face it.
An unhoused population survey of Multnomah County was intended for the start of 2021 but officials decided to delay it another year due health concerns for practically everyone involved with the process.
In horrendous fashion, our society treats unhoused individuals as burdens to the communities they exist in. Human beings, who lack what they need to thrive, are being purged from the systems that put them in such a position. Along with this, the challenges they face are being overlooked and forgotten about.
It’s certainly not an easy topic to analyze and report on. There is a level of sensitivity that needs to be acknowledged when talking about unhoused people. The term “homeless,” itself, is considered by some to not be politically correct—mostly because a “home” has such a vast range of meaning—so different words and phrases are often debated upon. And that’s perfectly reasonable, because those without adequate living situations are people just like the rest of us.
The houseless are our friends, our family members, and our neighbors.
Unfortunately, those with the resources and system-changing powers required to take care of unhoused people often sweep their needs under the rug.
What’s going on?
According to a study by the Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative at Portland State University, 38,000 people experienced homelessness in the tri-county area in 2017. This number was more than five times the count from the federally recognized Point-In-Time census in Multnomah County the same year.
In 2019, Point-In-Time said that 4,000 people met the federal government’s definition of homeless: anyone living without shelter, in emergency shelters, or in transitional housing.
Millions nationwide faced hardships accompanying the pandemic within the last year, and the number of people without shelter or the resources necessary to take care of themselves has evidently been rising.
Those effects can be seen not just in Portland, but all up and down the West Coast, where unhoused communities continue to grow in shape and size. The growth of large encampments—on freeway shoulders and exits, bridge underpasses, neighborhood parks, and all over city blocks in densely populated areas—is quite shocking to some.
As far as the 2021 Point-In-Time survey goes, rather than any direct interaction with the people being accounted for, an estimate will be created from bed counts in shelters and transitional housing.
This limited count will allow Multnomah County to continue receiving Housing and Urban Development funds from the federal government, though potentially miss out on short-term funding increases.
Extra funds or not, it’s clear that unhoused people are not getting the attention they need from the bureaucratic system, which, gradually, is separating itself from them.
Since 2017, the city of Portland itself has merged a couple of existing initiatives into one single program that—dare I say—deals with houselessness in the communities where it exists.
According to the city’s 2019-2021 plan, the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program, or HUCIRP, is not acting “to solve homelessness but rather works to reduce the impact of unsanctioned urban camping throughout the City of Portland.”
In other words, concerned community members are given a platform to report camps with too much trash or what they believe is suspicious activity.
After assessing a report, public service workers trained in nonviolent de-escalation take care of whatever issues there seem to be on-site.
“These crews all have lived experience – meaning they have been homeless at one point (or more) in their lives,” said Heather Hafer, a representative from Portland’s Office of Management and Finance and HUCIRP.
“Once onsite, they will engage with folks who are present, they will offer resources, they will pick up camper-identified garbage, and then they will conduct an assessment of the area and send that assessment back to the City.”
This program appears to have a positive impact on unhoused people at these sites—at least, in some ways—as well as the physical locations themselves. However, the online reporting system, called One Point of Contact, doesn’t exactly encourage a good relationship between Portland community members and their unhoused neighbors.
One Point of Contact gives virtually anyone a platform to report a homeless encampment, effectively streamlining the “clean-up” process and eliminating the need for relations between people living in the same community.
A successfully-filed report, which is sent into the online system, creates an assignment for the aforementioned city workers to complete. If more than a clean-up is deemed necessary, then a forceful removal of the people and property there, or a “sweep,” will take place.
Most sweeps are done by work crews from a locally owned contractor, Rapid Response Bio Clean, which provides “chemical and biological cleanup services in and around Portland.” These work crews are typically joined by a police unit.
The Portland Police Bureau’s Public Information Officer Greg Pashley claims the PPB doesn’t enforce sweeps, though numerous reporters say otherwise.
“I’ve covered at least a dozen sweeps In Portland,” said Cory Elia, Managing Editor for Village Portland, “and usually one cruiser accompanies a work crew for ‘security’ purposes. The campsites are given notice, and work crews show up early morning of the posted date and announce they are going to start clearing the camp.”
PPB has a history of affairs with Portland’s unhoused population. An independent review of the police department made by the city auditor found that over half of their arrests from 2017 to 2018 were homeless people.
All of this is not to say that Portland is devoid of actual houseless aid and caring communities.
A number of nonprofit shelters, like the Portland Rescue Mission, have existed in Portland for decades, some of which receive federal disbursements for housing and resources. Additionally, there are plenty of community member-led initiatives and mutual aid groups that work solely for the benefit of unhoused people and a handful of advocacy groups that aim to improve homeless treatment in the area.
A development that has gained traction over the last few years is the village model. This is when single-occupancy homes are constructed in communities to provide shelter for chronically unhoused people.
The city is currently seeking to streamline the planning and construction processes for these villages so they can be made at a higher rate.
One organization in particular, Street Roots, has been recognized for its outstanding commitment to the homeless community and progressivism.
The nonprofit weekly newspaper focuses on social justice issues and has emerged as a vital voice for Portland’s unhoused community within the last twenty years. The publication, especially, focuses on social justice issues and advocacy for houseless people.
Street Roots’ Managing Editor, Emily Green, said that a large portion of the publication’s vendors are unhoused or facing poverty themselves. “These vendors buy our publications for 25 cents a piece and sell them for a dollar, and get to keep any additional profits they make,” she said.
“It’s a really good income opportunity that allows the community to directly benefit Portland’s homeless population.
In 2019, Street Roots published a series of editorials calling for a different type of houselessness response in Portland, similar to that of CAHOOTS in Eugene.
CAHOOTS, or Crisis Assistance Helping out on the Streets, is a nationally recognized community-based response team that is called as an alternative to the police in mental health, homelessness, and addiction emergencies. This team is divided into multiple mobile units that utilize EMT, firefighter, and nonviolent de-escalation tactics.
Street Roots’ call to action influenced the development of a pilot program called Portland Street Response.
Since Feb. 16, 2021, a two-person mobile response team has been covering these types of calls in east Portland’s Lents Neighborhood, which was considered in 2016 to have the largest homeless encampment in the United States. Historically, Lents has seen a higher percentage of police response to situations involving houseless people in relation to other Portland neighborhoods.
Britt Urban, Street Response’s operating Mental Health Crisis Clinician, responds to calls with firefighter and paramedic Tremaine Clayton.
“There are also two Community Health Workers, Heather Middleton and Haika Mushi,” said Urban, “who will do any follow-up care with individuals we meet who need help connecting to resources.”
The Street Response team is seeking to add another full team mid-2021 and then expand to city-wide calls with additional teams at some point in 2022.
In order to be accepted as a city-wide program, Street Response must finish its pilot year, and successfully bargain with both the city and the Portland Police Association to continue receiving public funding.
Urban said that the growing number of non-police first responders who are trained in medical and mental health care as well as crisis de-escalation will hopefully lead to fewer unnecessary arrests and hospitalizations.
So, is Portland seeing any positive change in its homeless communities?
Will it last?
Not unless societal attitudes towards unhoused people change as well.
Drug and alcohol dependency, job loss, undesirable skills, and even diagnosable physical and mental disabilities are all commonly cited reasons for people slipping through society’s cracks. This type of reasoning places an unjust weight on a group that is already marginalized—a group that is already being crushed by unfair expectations.
No person can choose the life they are born into, or the influences that will affect them. Clearly, those experiencing houselessness are the products of flawed systems who need support, rather than burdens to be left behind.