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Homelessness Toolkit

City of Portland

Frequently Asked Questions

Skip to the following categories: ENFORCEMENT, GENERAL QUESTIONS, STATE OF EMERGENCY, or CAMPING, Or, scroll down for answers to the following questions:

  • I have a homeless camp in front of my business/home. Why can't the police do anything about it?
  • Why won't the City institute a "sit-lie" ordinance?
  • I am witnessing unlawful activity, such as drugs, sex in public, aggressive behavior, and people using the public right-of-way as a toilet. What are the boundaries of legal and illegal behavior? Who should I call when I witness unlawful behaviors?
  • Why won't the police just come and arrest the homeless people?
  • Why does the city have so many homeless people?
  • What has the City previously done, and why are there still homeless people?
  • What is the City going to do to end homelessness?
  • What as the City done regarding homeless veterans?
  • What does the City's State of Emergency in Housing and Homelessness do?
  • What are the City's intentions for building new shelters during the State of Emergency?
  • What are the City's policies on camping?

Enforcement

 

I HAVE A HOMELESS CAMP IN FRONT OF MY BUSINESS/HOME. WHY CAN’T THE POLICE DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT RIGHT NOW?

There continue to be camps that run afoul of the City’s temporary tolerance of low-impact camping. Those camps typically are large, unorganized ones with many structures, significant amounts of trash, and criminal activity. In those circumstances, the City will work to move the camp, and to do so in the least traumatic, most compassionate manner. That process, mandated in the settlement of the Anderson v. Portland lawsuit, requires the City to post notification at the camp that they will have to leave. As soon as the landowning City Bureau decides to remove the camp, service providers are notified to conduct outreach to the affected campers. 

The City then posts notification, which gives from 24 hours to 7 days for people to pack up and leave. While that’s a vague timeframe, that occurs because it initially takes time to line up the resources to conduct the cleanup. Once the schedule is set, the City gives specific timing to the camp, and when the time comes either City staff or contractors go to the camp and pick up garbage, waste and anything people leave behind. Anything deemed as personal property is then taken to a storage facility in SW Portland and remains available for pickup for a month before it’s thrown away. 

WHY WON’T THE CITY INSTITUTE A “SIT-LIE” ORDINANCE?

A "sit-lie" policy is one designed to prevent people from sitting or lying on public sidewalks. In 2009 the United States District Court ruled that the City’s “sit-lie” ordinance was unconstitutional. Since then, the City has improved public space management in numerous ways.

By creating more walking beat routes with the Portland Police Bureau, police now have greater awareness of who lives on the street and have worked to earn trust, making it much easier for people to respect public space.

Certain high-use areas are designated “high pedestrian zones”, which mandates passable sidewalk; there are many blocks in the Central City that have been given this status by the Portland Bureau of Transportation and Portland Police Bureau.

I AM WITNESSING UNLAWFUL ACTIVITY, SUCH AS DRUGS, SEX IN PUBLIC, AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR, AND PEOPLE USING THE PUBLIC RIGHT-OF-WAY AS A TOILET. WHAT ARE THE BOUNDARIES OF LEGAL AND ILLEGAL BEHAVIOR? WHO SHOULD I CALL WHEN I WITNESS UNLAWFUL BEHAVIORS?

The City has created a new “One Point of Contact” system to allow for a more efficient, streamlined way for the public to alert the City on misuse of public space. This system allows the public to easily report concerns with urban camping (i.e. aggressive behavior, open drug use) and have one unified answer from the City.

Not all complaints will result in action by the City. There are low-level behaviors that will continue, as the City must marshal its resources strategically. But knowing where bad behavior exists allows the City to better understand where to direct outreach workers and resources like the high-intensity street engagement team.

WHY WON’T THE POLICE ARREST HOMELESS PEOPLE? Being homeless is not against the law; in fact, the Department of Justice has recently made it clear that not allowing people to sleep on the street may be illegal. What is illegal are criminal behaviors, whether they’re conducted by the housed or the homeless, and Portland Police respond when appropriate. If you witness criminal behavior that warrants immediate response, please call 9-1-1.


General Questions

 

WHY DOES PORTLAND HAVE SO MANY HOMELESS PEOPLE?

There are many reasons for why people fall into homelessness. As Marc Jolin, director of the city-county partnership A Home for Everyone, states, "[h]omelessness is most common among people who already face a variety of disadvantages. People are more likely to experience homelessness if they grew up in a family that experienced homelessness, are long-term unemployed, have limited formal education, have significant disabilities, addictions, or have experiences of trauma." Regardless, nobody’s story is exactly the same.

Portland has had a relatively small homeless population over the years compared to other cities, though our population is more visible than many other places. Despite housing roughly 3,000 formerly homeless people a year, we continue to have homelessness. The 2015 point-in-time count showed that our homeless population has remained flat since the last count, done in 2013, although there has been a dramatic rise in the number of homeless African Americans and single women.

Portland has adopted a strategy called “Housing First,” which involves bypassing temporary shelter and moving homeless people directly into permanent housing, regardless of their addictions, illnesses or other barriers. The idea behind the Housing First model is that people have a better chance of addressing their challenges if they have stable, safe housing rather than uncertainty in where they can sleep. Roughly a decade or so ago, the City de-emphasized expanding temporary shelter space in favor of building permanent housing, and we are now seeing the consequences of not having enough temporary, indoor bed spaces for our homeless population.

Portland has also grown and there are fewer forgotten corners of our city, which in decades past have allowed for a less visible homeless population. That, combined with the relative ease of obtaining tents — a newer phenomenon — has created a perception that our homeless population has all of a sudden exploded, when in reality, it’s just much more visible.

WHAT HAS THE CITY PREVIOUSLY DONE, AND WHY ARE THERE STILL HOMELESS PEOPLE?

The 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, launched in December 2004, sought to end chronic homelessness. Together, our community made it easier for people to get help when they needed it and invested in permanent supportive housing for people with very high needs. Successes include:

  • Helping more than 12,000 homeless families and individuals find permanent homes. A year after permanent placement, 84 percent were still stably housed.
  • Opening Bud Clark Commons, which includes a day center, emergency shelter for 90 men (including 45 veterans), and 130 permanent supportive housing units. In FY 2011-12, the day center provided basic services to 7,100 people. Of these, 637 found permanent housing and 3,669 were connected to services.
  • Launching Bridges to Housing, an innovative four-county collaboration providing permanent housing, intensive family services and child care for homeless families with high needs. By 2011, more than 187 families had been helped.
  • Creating and consolidating the Short-Term Rent Assistance (STRA) program into a centrally administered rent assistance and eviction prevention program. In 2011, more than $4 million federal, state and local funding from the City of Portland, City of Gresham, Multnomah County and Home Forward, went into STRA, preventing or ending homelessness for 2,365 households.

While these successes permanently housed thousands of Portlanders experiencing homelessness, they did not end homelessness. The most recent economic recession led to more homelessness, which was then followed by a very dramatic increase in rents and housing prices, leading to more people falling into homelessness or unable to get out of homelessness.

Additionally, in 2013, our community strategically combined resources and deployed them in a targeted manner to create A Home for Everyone, our shared community partnership.

WHAT IS THE CITY GOING TO DO TO END HOMELESSNESS?

There is a linear progression of moving people from living on the street into permanent housing, which is the end goal. At every point the City is working to move people living on the street either into temporary shelter and from there into permanent housing, or directly into permanent housing.

The City is a partner in a joint effort to house homeless, called A Home for Everyone. A Home for Everyone is a partnership of The City of Portland, Multnomah County, The City of Gresham, Meyer Memorial Trust, the business community, the nonprofit community and the faith community, with the goal of combining resources to target various strategies aimed at reducing homelessness.

The City's investments are aligned with A Home for Everyone’s strategic plan, and include investments made at every step of the homelessness continuum — helping to improve how people experience homelessness, providing more shelter space, and building more affordable housing.

WHAT HAS THE CITY DONE REGARDING HOMELESS VETERANS?

In 2014, the White House asked the City and County to take the Mayors Challenge to End Veteran Homelessness and house every homeless veteran — a total of 690 veterans at that time — by the end of 2015. While there will likely continue to be more homeless veterans over time, the City and County took the challenge to get to “functional zero,” housing all existing homeless veterans so that additional homeless veterans can be more rapidly rehoused.

Through a massive combined effort with public agencies, nonprofits and private landlords, as of the end of November 2015, 695 veterans have been housed.


State of Emergency

 

WHAT DOES THE CITY’S STATE OF EMERGENCY ON HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS DO?

The Portland City Council took the extraordinary step of unanimously declaring a State of Emergency on October 7, 2015. The State of Emergency in Housing and Homelessness lasts one year, and Council has the ability to continue it for an additional six months. Because the number of unsheltered people outnumber the number of available indoor bed spaces, and the continuing of rising rents in a growing housing market, with more people moving here daily, Council decided that new tools are necessary to address the crisis.

The State of Emergency allows the City to expedite permitting and siting for shelters and for building more affordable housing units — a both costly and time-consuming processes. The declaration allows for waiving certain procurement processes and, on a case-by-case basis, portions of the zoning and building codes.

Additionally, the declaration gives the City the ability to closely examine existing barriers to moving people from the street into permanent housing and begin the process of making permanent code changes to increase investment in addressing homelessness after the State of Emergency is lifted.

Finally, the Mayor committed to adding an additional $20 million into homeless service and housing during the State of Emergency.

WHAT ARE THE CITY’S INTENTIONS FOR EXPANDING SHELTERS DURING THE STATE OF EMERGENCY?

During the State of Emergency, the City and County are working to find venues to create more shelter space; already two new temporary shelters have opened — one at the Jerome Sears Army Reserve Building in Southwest Portland and one downtown at Southwest Fourth and Washington. Each of these serves specific populations (single women and couples at Sears and single men at the downtown one).

Additionally the City and County are working with churches and other places of worship to shelter people both inside their facilities and outside in parking lots.


Camping

 

WHAT ARE THE CITY’S POLICIES ON CAMPING?

Unsanctioned camping is not permitted in the City (City Code 14A.50.020 and 14A.50.050). When camps are cleaned up, campers will be provided at least 72 hours advanced written notice, and the City will store valuable property from camps so that people can retrieve their belongings.

While the six-month Safe Sleep Guidelines sunset Aug. 2, 2016, City enforcement will prioritize areas that have the greatest negative impact on livability. The City will continue to work with social service providers and Police Bureau to communicate to homeless people the situations that will be prioritized for enforcement. Police will continue to use compassion in enforcement, recognizing that the city doesn’t have enough shelter beds for everyone, and that some people have to sleep outside.

Six-Month Pilot Safe Sleep Guidelines (Sunset: Aug. 2, 2016)

Shelter

Should higher-impact camping exist, the City will remove camps, with an emphasis on explaining how and where they can move to a low-impact area and where they can go to have an indoor bed space.