By CLAIRE RUSH, Associated Press/America Report
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The mayor of Portland, Ore., plans to ban camping on city streets and move homeless people to designated encampments, as a growing homeless population has become a top concern. for the vast majority of residents.
“The scale and depth of the homeless crisis in our city is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe,” Mayor Ted Wheeler said Friday. “We need to bring our scattered and vulnerable homeless population closer to the services they need.”
The resolution would establish at least three large designated outdoor camping sites, with the first opening within 18 months of funding being obtained. Wheeler did not specify when the funding would be confirmed or how much the move would cost.
The designated camp sites could initially serve up to 125 people and would provide access to services such as food, hygiene, garbage collection and mental health and substance abuse treatment, Wheeler said. The sites could eventually serve 500 people.
Oregon’s homeless crisis has been fueled by a housing shortage, the coronavirus pandemic and drug addiction.
More than 3,000 people are living without shelter in Portland, a 50% increase from 2019, and there are more than 700 encampments citywide, Wheeler said.
The resolution is one of several Wheeler plans to introduce to City Council next week in a bid to address the city’s homeless and affordable housing crises.
Under the measures, social workers would direct people camping on the street to designated camping sites in the city. Police could arrest or cite people if they refuse to leave, Wheeler said. But the citations could be waived as part of a “service diversion program” that would allow people cited for minor offenses, such as violating the camping ban, to receive mental health or substance abuse treatment instead of jail time. .
Scott Kerman, executive director of Blanchet House, a Portland nonprofit that provides social services to the homeless, said the plan “has some positive elements” but “a lot of unanswered questions and unknown details remain.” particularly with respect to the provision of compliance. . Some homeless people are resistant to living in large group settings because of previous negative experiences, he said.
“We serve people who, even in the most extreme weather conditions of winter and summer, will not seek emergency shelter because they have post-traumatic stress disorder and shelter anxiety,” Kerman told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. , referring to the post-traumatic experience. stress disorder. “They have felt insecure in those environments. They may even have been victimized in those settings.”
Kerman also expressed concern that Oregon’s already overwhelmed mental health and criminal justice systems may buckle under the added strain amid shortages of hospital staff, psychiatric beds and public defenders.
“Our state hospital, our local hospitals, our county jails are already over capacity with people in detention for mental health issues who are in the criminal justice system,” he said.
A federal judge ruled last month that the Oregon State Hospital must limit the amount of time it can hold patients charged with crimes, in a bid to create space in the overcrowded facility for those charged with crimes in need. mental health treatment but are incarcerated.
Meanwhile, the continuing shortage of public defenders due to workload, poor pay and back pay prompted criminal defendants to sue the state this year, saying it is violating their constitutional right to counsel and a quick trial.
The Portland City Council declared a state of emergency for homelessness in 2015 and has extended it five times since then. The measure, which is set to expire in 2025, lowers the bureaucratic hurdles surrounding creating homeless shelters.
This year alone, Wheeler issued four emergency declarations to address homelessness issues. Most recently, in August, she expanded a statement that prohibits camping along high-speed corridors, such as freeways, to include key walking routes to K-12 schools.
Rush is a staff member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. Follow Rush on Twitter.
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