Oregonian today: "Homelessness in downtown Portland? Poll results rank popular solutions"


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Homelessness in downtown Portland? Poll results rank popular solutions offered by area residents

downtown portland

Tents line the sidewalk of a block in downtown Portland on Thurs., May 20, 2021. The OregonianThe Oregonian

Portland-area residents unhappy with city leaders’ response to homelessnessstrongly favor more frequent garbage pickup at downtown homeless camp sites but otherwise differ on what solutions should be used to remedy the situation, poll results show.

Increase trash pick-ups at camps where people are homeless live
Support
Oppose
Metro-area residents
85%
9%
Portland residents
90%
6%
Provide more portable toilets, outdoor showers and other sanitary services
Support
Oppose
Metro-area residents
68%
26%
Portland residents
79%
17%
Open a large congregate shelter for people who are homeless
Support
Oppose
Metro-area residents
75%
18%
Portland residents
81%
14%
Provide motel vouchers to people who are homeless
Support
Oppose
Metro-area residents
59%
33%
Portland residents
73%
24%
Allow more areas for people to camp or sleep in cars or RVs
Support
Oppose
Metro-area residents
41%
53%
Portland residents
53%
41%
Force campers to leave downtown
Support
Oppose
Metro-area residents
61%
30%
Portland residents
53%
42%

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Residents of the city’s suburbs generally favor tougher treatment of people without homes of their own while those in Portland proper would far rather offer campers motel rooms than order them to vacate downtown.

Overall, Portland-area residents support a variety of immediate solutions ranging from adding more portable toilets to forcing campers to leave downtown. Setting aside more areas where people could safely camp or sleep in cars or RVs, however, was a no-go for many residents.

The findings come from a poll of 600 adults in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas and Clark counties commissioned by The Oregonian|OregonLive about people’s perceptions of downtown Portland. The poll was conducted from April 30 to May 6. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

None of the people contacted to take part in the poll were experiencing homelessness. And while many of the poll-takers regularly or sometimes visit downtown, others reported never having visited downtown either before or after businesses closed down due to the pandemic. Nearly half of metrowide residents reported they have not come downtown at all since coronavirus arrived in Oregon and almost 30% more said they’ve visited just a few times.

Marisa Zapata, director of Portland State University’s Homelessness Research and Action Collaborative, questioned whether some of the solutions presented in the poll would truly help people experiencing homelessness or if they would simply help housed people feel more comfortable downtown because they wouldn’t have to see homelessness or its impacts.

“When we are thinking about what is helpful, it is very different to ask a housed person what helps someone who is unsheltered to live a better life when they have never lived unsheltered,” she said. “But it really gets more into answering the question of what you, as a taxpayer, would be willing to fund.”

TRASH REMOVAL

The poll showed 85% of Portlanders support increasing trash pickup at tent clusters downtown. Many individuals experiencing homelessness and advocates agree with this.

Sonny Smith, who was sweeping the area around the tent where he sleeps downtown on a recent Thursday, said “more trash pickup is needed downtown because garbage cans are always packed full.”

He said it would be easier to keep tent areas clean if nearby trash cans were emptied more frequently.

Kaia Sand, director of Street Roots, a homelessness advocacy and resource organization, said trash removal is not something that is tackled at an infrastructure level in Portland. Instead trash services are divided up piecemeal between nearly a dozen different agencies, though none sees the task as its top priority. And trash collection at encampments isn’t done on a consistent schedule.

“Both with garbage and hygiene services,it is interesting that we don’t have a full sanitation department,” she said. “Those are things we could look at in a big way.”

TOILETS, SHOWERS

The poll found 67% of residents support providing more portable toilets, showers and other sanitary services. Residents living in the city proper supported this solution more strongly than their suburban counterparts. It is also a resource that individuals experiencing homelessness have continued to say is a priority – not just increasing the number of toilets on the street, but increasing how often the city cleans them.

“It would be better if people could just use the many bathrooms downtown in actual buildings,” Zapata said. “However, porta-potties are not a bad choice, so (increasing the number of portable toilets) would be something that supports people who are homeless, but it will not solve homelessness.”

Additionally, Smith said while there are homeless services agencies downtown that offer showers, the resource isn’t something that is accessible daily since there is such a high demand for it.

MOTEL VOUCHERS

The poll showed 58% of residents support temporarily sheltering people in individual hotel rooms. Residents who live in the city supported this at a higher rate, 73%, than suburbanites at 53%.

Currently, the joint city-county homeless office is offering motel shelters to homeless individuals with a higher risk of experiencing severe symptoms or death from COVID-19 or to those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

Zapata said the joint city-county office should provide additional motel vouchers to individuals experiencing homelessness – an expense that can be fully reimbursed by the federal government. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Zapata’s team conducted their own survey asking people experiencing homelessness where they would want to go since congregate shelters were limited due to pandemic social distancing precautions.

“The number one choice was a motel,” Zapata said. Solutions should be driven by the realities of people experiencing homelessness, she said.

SANCTIONED CAMPING SITES

The potential solution that drew the least support from poll participants was to open more alternative outdoor shelters such as sanctioned camp sites and safe parking lots for individuals to sleep in. In all, 53% opposed that option and just 41% supported it.

A man named Shane, who declined to provide his last name because he didn’t want his homeless experience to impact his job, said he sees a need for more sanctioned camping sites or tiny home villages.

downtown portland

A tent sits at the corner of 3rd Ave. and Main St. in downtown Portland on Thurs., May 20, 2021. The OregonianThe Oregonian

“Ideally, those would be program-oriented and help people set and reach goals while they are there,” he said.

Johnny Lee Robertson, who was formerly homeless but now lives in a subsidized apartment, said he often observed people pitching tents side by side to create a semblance of safety but living on the street wasn’t truly ever safe. He believes offering people sanctioned sites to camp would create a much safer environment.

City officials and advocates for unsheltered people are currently discussing options for more alternative shelter as they how to respond to one of the city’s largest homeless encampments currently located near Laurelhurst Park. Many of the campers at that site said they would be willing to move to a sanctioned camping village but not an large indoor shelter with shared sleeping and living space.

While the city does not currently have the resources to pop up new alternative shelters in the coming weeks, the joint city-county budget proposal includes $3 million to do so in the coming year.

FORCE CAMPERS OUT

The survey showed 61% of residents support the city forcing homeless individuals to leave downtown, with most of that support coming from residents living in the suburbs. Individuals experiencing homelessness and advocates do not support this, nor do court rulings suggest it would be legal for the city to do so.

“I am trying to exit the street,” said Smith, who lives in a tent downtown. “But I am trying to do it the right way and save up my money for a car. I think people should be allowed to sleep in tents if they are trying to save up their money because there’s no place else for me to go until I have enough saved.”

Shane added that many social services, including housing, behavioral health and food services, are clustered near the downtown area. Forcing people from downtown would make those services much harder to access for individuals experiencing homelessness who often don’t have a car or money for transportation.

Sand, of Street Roots, was dismayed that so many responders wished to push people out of downtown.

“Asking people to go into mass shelter or leave downtown definitely solves the fact that people don’t have to see that person who is homeless,” she said. “But that is all, it doesn’t actually help solve the real issue of housing.”

On Wednesday, city officials announced intentions to move more quickly to clean up, downsize or completely remove encampments throughout the city saying their more passive strategy was failing to keep the city clean from public health hazards. However, homeless individuals and advocates argued that is harmful policy for people living on the street.

CONGREGATE SHELTERS

The survey showed 75% of residents would support more congregate, indoor shelters opening. However, individuals experiencing homelessness overwhelming say they would prefer to live on the street, to access alternative shelter like sanctioned camping or tiny home villages or start the process to get in line for an apartment of their own.

Smith said he doesn’t feel comfortable sleeping at indoor shelters next to strangers. He said there is little privacy and his personal items have been stolen when he previously stayed at a shelter, which is why he prefers to live in a tent on his own.

“Mass shelter is simply just temporary shelter; it is not a solution,” Sand said. “Mass shelter does work for some people, though, which is good in the sense that we need many different resources to solve such a herculean problem, but it won’t end homelessness and we often hear that mass shelter isn’t right for many people.”

OTHER NEEDS

Additional solutions that participants of The Oregonian|OregonLive survey were not asked about include expanding affordable housing, providing more access to housing caseworkers and better access to health care.

Individuals experiencing homelessness who were surveyed by Zapata’s team with help from Street Roots found that people overwhelming reported stable housing as the top solution to their homelessness. Additionally, people reported they needed help connecting to those resources.

“One thing from our survey conducted last fall, was that people are looking to have more contact with outreach workers and mobile health teams,” Zapata said. “That to me is a really important investment. Having those relationships developed now so that people are more comfortable and willing and trusting to move into housing.”

Zapata said there is also a lack of mental health care workers serving the homeless.

“Over and over again people said they valued and needed those personal relationships, especially relationships that reflected their own culture,” she said. “So, when you say we can spend $100 on trash pickup or $100 on a meaningful connection, which do you choose?”

Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian|OregonLive. She can be reached at nhayden@...or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden

Today’s report is part of the ongoing series Downtown in Distress.