The Portland City Council is set to consider Monday a proposed order that would amend city ordinances to allow homeless individuals to camp and loiter in public spaces, with few exceptions.
The order, submitted by City Councilors Anna Trevorrow and Roberto Rodriguez, would create a “temporary exception to the City’s prohibition on camping and loitering on City property and would allow unhoused people to camp on certain public property from the
effective date of the amendments to April 30, 2024.”
The proposed amendment changes would maintain a prohibition on camping in certain specified locations, including downtown streets and sidewalks, playgrounds, City Hall Plaza, Monument Square, and within 250 feet of schools.
The push to effectively legalize homeless encampments has been met with broad resistance.
In memos submitted to the City Council in advance of their first reading of the proposal, the Portland Police Department, the Departments of Health and Human Services (DHHS), Parks, Recreation and Facilities, and Housing and Economic Development all identified their concerns with the anticipated impacts of the order on public health and safety.
Portland DHHS Public Health Director Alfredo Vergara recommended against the City Council moving forward with the proposed ordinance changes, citing in his memo numerous public health risks posed by homeless encampments.
The health risks of homeless encampments listed by Vergara include the increased transmission of infectious diseases from dirty needles such as HIV and Hepatitis C and A, the lack of sanitation with food and water, potential transmission of diseases borne by rodents, birds, and other animals, and the lack of human waste disposal.
Vergara also identified the encampments’ exposure to extreme weather conditions, fire hazards, lack of easy access to healthcare, and violence as reasons for the DHHS recommendation against the proposal.
“As the largest public health risks in encampments revolve around infectious disease and other hazards resulting from poor hygiene, and due to the inability to provide sufficient services and resources to mitigate these issues, it is the public health recommendation to not move forward with the current proposed ordinance changes,” Vergara wrote.
Ethan Hipple, Director of Portland’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Facilities, wrote in his memo to the City Council that the proposed ordinance changes “would result in the degradation and long term damage of public spaces, decrease ADA accessibility and safe pedestrian transportation, and lower the overall quality of life in Portland.”
“The proposed changes will also prolong inhumane and dangerous living conditions for the unhoused, and hazardous working conditions for City staff,” Hipple added.
Hipple describes how similar approaches to homeless encampments in Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Denver, Colorado have “proven disastrous,” saying that these cities “are now reversing course and working to increase enforcement efforts so that these cities remain livable and sustainable for all.”
“As we have seen in Portland and elsewhere around the country, entrenched encampments are incompatible with the safe and healthy use of a park by all populations,” he wrote.
Portland Chief of Police Mark Dubois described similar public health and safety concerns in his memo to the Council.
Allowing camping and loitering on sidewalks, Dubois wrote, creates “a significant risk of hazard to both campers and pedestrians trying to navigate the city’s sidewalks.”
Dubois wrote that although there is a provision in the proposed ordinance changes to allow police to clear an obstruction, pedestrians would likely have to step into the roadway to avoid campers and their belongings.
The Portland Police Chief also identified the risk posed to campers by snow being plowed from the roadways during the winter.
Director of the Portland Department of Public Works Michael Murray also cited snow removal as a significant concern.
“The additional obstacle of campsites along the right of way would limit DPW operators’ ability to remove snow and maintain navigable roads for drivers and pedestrians; travel lanes would be narrowed, creating a significant threat of injury or death to persons in the campsites/encampments over the course of plowing events,” Murray wrote.
Additional cause for concern, according to Dubois, is the proximity of homeless encampments to businesses that would be allowed under the ordinance changes.
One proposed ordinance change would allow camping, sleeping, and loitering in “the front or immediate area of any store, shop, restaurant, tavern or other place of business…”
“Allowing these activities in such close proximity to businesses would invite negative interactions between campers, business owners, and patrons, and a drastic increase in calls for service related to activities frequently associated with encampments,” Dubois wrote.
Dubois added that under current conditions, Portland Police responds to “multiple such calls daily,” and would expect that number to increase if the proposed ordinance changes are passed.
Following the city’s sweep of the homeless encampment at the Marginal Way Park and Ride on Nov. 1, the largest encampment in the city is now located underneath the Casco Bay Bridge.
Mary Davis, interim director of the Portland Housing and Economic Development Department, and Waterfront Coordinator Bill Needelman, wrote in a joint memo to the Council that camping on the waterfront area could put the homeless at risk of flooding, exposure to extreme coastal weather, and drowning.
Additionally, the proliferation of waterfront encampments that may come as a result of passing the proposed ordinance changes “may do long term harm to the positive economic impact of the waterfront economy,” Davis and Needelman wrote.
Davis and Needelman also expressed concerns over health hazards, an increase in thefts, and the encampments’ proximity to businesses being a deterrent to costumers.