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'Nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe': Portland mayor proposes controversial ban on unsanctioned encampments
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

'Nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe': Portland mayor proposes controversial ban on unsanctioned encampments

On Friday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler announced a five-point plan to address the city's homelessness crisis, including a citywide ban on unsanctioned encampments.

"The magnitude and the depth of the homeless crisis in our city is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe," Wheeler stated during a Friday press conference. "We need to move our scattered, vulnerable homeless population closer to the services that they need."

The plan includes: creating 20,000 units of affordable housing by 2033, increasing access to paid non-standard work, banning unsanctioned camping, creating a diversion program to encourage treatment for drug abuse and mental health, and setting a city budget.

Wheeler said that he hopes to create three designated sites to house up to 125 campers each before the start of winter. However, funding has yet to be locked down, and the camping sites would take 18 months to open. The mayor did not specify how much the project would cost.

"We do have locations in mind. We're currently in discussions with those who control those sites and will be ready to discuss them as soon as we have agreements in place," said Wheeler.

According to WFIN, more than 3,000 people in Portland are homeless, a 50% increase from 2019. The outlet reported that the city contains 700 encampments within 146 square miles. A recent survey found that the top concern for Oregonians is homelessness, KATU reported.

Wheeler explained that arrests and fines are an option for individuals who refuse to move, but not a first resort.

"If somebody just absolutely just digs in and says, 'I won't go,' then we'll have to talk about criminal sanctions. But I also want to stress, the fourth resolution that we put into place, our goal here isn't to write a bunch of citations," said Wheeler.

The mayor noted that the city would waive the sanctions and low-level offenses in exchange for volunteering to participate in treatment for substance abuse and mental health. Wheeler stated that the ultimate goal of the proposed program is to ensure that people who need treatment receive it.

Homeless advocates expressed concern about the ban on unsanctioned encampments and the timeline for creating additional housing.

Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House, a Portland non-profit offering services to the homeless, told KATU that his main apprehension about the program is the ban.

"I certainly have a lot of questions about the enforcement mechanism of this ban," said Kerman. "And I think Mayor Wheeler acknowledged that those individuals that are not incentivized to select services and shelter options will be arrested."

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty also expressed deep concern over the mayor's proposal.

"No city plan for shelter expansion should involve sending people to jail because they live in extreme poverty, or may be suffering from a mental or behavioral health issue," Hardesty stated.

The mayor's proposed plan will be introduced to the City Council on Wednesday. In 2015, the council declared a state of emergency on homelessness that it has extended five times since then.

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