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Why Portland has the Worst Homeless Problem in the Nation

Updated on August 7, 2020
It's important to show compassion for the homeless. Remember that addiction and mental illness can happen to anyone.
It's important to show compassion for the homeless. Remember that addiction and mental illness can happen to anyone. | Source

Portland's Chronic Homeless Problem

Although East Portland’s Springwater Corridor has been around for a long time, the massive homeless encampment has grown exponentially in the past several years – reflecting a growing problem of homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness. In 2016, a shantytown alongside a nearly two-mile stretch of the corridor became the largest homeless encampment in the nation, containing nearly 200 tents and approximately 500 homeless people. Unfortunately, the Springwater Corridor is not an exception in Portland, Oregon.

In 2018, there was an estimated 14,000 chronically homeless people in Portland. Approximately 75% of Portland’s homeless suffers some form of drug or alcohol dependency, and roughly 50% have a mental illness (though many remain people undiagnosed due to improper access to medical care).

A History of Homelessness

Homelessness is not a new issue, but it has been getting worse since the deinstitutionalization movement in the 1970s, which closed down many state psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to improve treatment of the mentally ill. When severely ill patients were freed from these abusive “insane asylums” they were left ill-prepared for normal life and many found themselves homeless.

David Willis, a homeless-services coordinator at Union Gospel Mission, explained that “some went into adult foster care, but other stayed on the streets. The people who work in foster care don’t have a background in psychiatric counseling or care…they can’t help these people. And mentally ill homeless people can’t help themselves…somebody has to make sure they bathe, change their clothes, and take their medications.”

A shelter in the Springwater corridor along Northeast Sand Boulevard.
A shelter in the Springwater corridor along Northeast Sand Boulevard. | Source

Why Portland?

But why is Portland’s homeless problem so out of control compared to other cities? One reason is that it is relatively easy to be homeless in Portland (Note: It’s not easy to be homeless anywhere, but it might be less brutal in Portland than other cities). The city has passed anti-panhandling statutes and city ordinances which ban sitting or lying on sidewalks, but these are tough to enforce and the result is visible and numerous homeless populations.

The weather in Portland could be another factor contributing to the rising numbers of homeless people. Portland stays relatively mild year-round and gets a third less rain than New York City, contrary to popular belief. Sure, it gets cold in the winter, but it’s nothing compared to Chicago, where one night in below freezing temperatures can kill you.

It has been rumored that homeless people struggling in other cities travel by bus or train to take advantage of Portland’s mild climate and homeless services. One rumor is that other jurisdictions purchase bus tickets for homeless people to Portland in order to fix homeless problems in their own cities. Commissioner Saltzman says, “Portland is a tolerant city and has a moderate West Coast climate, so I think there’s some truth to it…people come here because we make it comfortable to be homeless.”

Differing Opinions: How do we Find a Solution for Everyone?

There has been some debate in the community about whether police sweeps of homeless encampments are ethical. The City of Portland has a $4.5 million per year contract with a firm called Rapid Response, tasked with clearing out and cleaning up camps across the city.

The sweeping process has been criticized because it can often be traumatizing for the city’s homeless, and cause them to lose what few precious belongings they have. Sweeps leave people without the basic things they need to survive: tents, sleeping bags, tarps, even medication, can be taken by authorities to be destroyed or never returned.

In response, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler argues that the sweeps are not random harassment, and that the purpose of the exorbitantly expensive contract is to be “thoughtful and compassionate” in the cleanup of camps. But the reality is, that money could be much better spent elsewhere – providing quality mental health services, addiction services, affordable housing, career counseling and vocational training, or many other services that the homeless desperately need in order to improve their quality of life.

The Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp located in Old Town - the camp has since relocated.
The Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp located in Old Town - the camp has since relocated. | Source

A New Approach to the Homeless Problem

Just three miles north of the Springwater Corridor, local community leaders are trying something new with the homeless population: letting them stay. Portland Police Officer Jason Jones describes his job as “incremental trust-building,” and decided that he could either come down on scofflaws with full force, or he could help make homeless people feel safe enough to talk to him – so that he could help. Jones rarely makes drug arrests when he works the Springwater Corridor (unless there is other illegal behavior, like driving under the influence), and the residents there are starting to trust him.

Not everyone on the streets of Portland is mentally ill or a drug addict, but what almost all of these people share is weak social and family ties. Alexa Mason, from the Portland Rescue Mission, says “almost everyone we help here is struggling without any support network…a lack of family support is the one common denominator that unites almost everybody.” The experiment in the Springwater Corridor proves that it is possible for neighborhoods and communities to make peace with people who are unable to live indoors. The homeless problem isn’t going away any time soon, and Portlanders can’t just keep moving people from place to place, we must start working towards real solutions in the form of community support and better access to services for the homeless.

Have you noticed a problem with homelessness in your city?

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    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      6 weeks ago from Florida

      Credence I think the problems that were, years ago, is nothing compared to the realities of today, and what seems to be going on in every major population area.

      An interesting documentary that shows the problems in Seattle from a year or so back:

    • Credence2 profile image


      6 weeks ago from Florida (Space Coast)

      Great article, Mariah

      I lived in a Hawaii, for a handful of years and it is said that California paid for one way plane tickets to move some vagrants out. On the Big Island there are lots of people with no address. Younger people that come and find that employment is hard to come by, especially that paying decent wages in a relatively high cost of living area. The difference between the problem there and the mainland is a sense of oneness and community that is lacking on the Mainland. The idea of an extended family makes it all bearable, combine that with a perfect climate, fruit falling off the trees, plentiful soup kitchens, many derelicts choose to remain as they are. It is almost impossible to starve, really.

      But, looking at the problem from another large metro area, Denver, where I spent most of working career, the situation for the rising homeless is different. The cost of housing has become so expensive that many people with average jobs cannot afford to rent. This is similar to what has been happening in San Francisco, but a smaller scale.

      While in LA, a lot of those homeless are what you describe in Portland, mentally ill of a victim of substance abuse. These folks need a greater emphasis on medical facilities and assistance In Denver, we needed more affordable housing.

      Again, thanks for your insight...

    • Ken Burgess profile image

      Ken Burgess 

      6 weeks ago from Florida

      Good article, spot on noting a large part of the problem was the shutting down of institutions and how we handle those incapable of caring for themselves or functioning in society.

      I worked in a ER at a hospital that had a Mental Ward and from my observations, the stress caused to that hospital's workers, the police, and local community at large in having to deal with a growing population of mentally disturbed and irrational people is substantial.

      A great many of these people are a threat to themselves, the police, and anyone they come in contact with, they are often carriers and spreaders of disease and can react with irrational violence towards anyone.

      They would cycle through the hospital, brought in by police, often ranting and resisting, disturbingly unclean and vicious towards all they came in contact with. Eventually they would be restrained, drugged, moved to the Mental Ward, treated for a few days, transferred to another facility that does nothing more than observe them for a couple of days and then releases them back on the streets.

      Within two weeks they are back at the hospital and the whole cycle begins again.

      The financial costs involved in this one can only imagine, the harm it does to the nurses and police that have to contend with this endless dreary cycle of continuous assault on their decency and sanity is unquantifiable.

      And the numbers are swelling well past the point of being able to handle them all across the country, a nation unwilling to deal with its real problems in a way that protects the rest of its functioning and productive society. Just another sign that we are a failing State.

    • Mariah Bruce profile imageAUTHOR

      Mariah Bruce 

      6 weeks ago from Portland, OR

      Oh that story makes me so angry! What do you think is the point of that? Give him enough tickets that they can justify arresting him so now he's not a problem anymore? (out of sight, out of mind, right?).

      And still, people will say, "well, he shouldn't have broken the law." I see a lot of people blaming the individual because they refuse to see the bigger picture of what all this homelessness means. Or maybe too much pride to admit that they are one bad month away from being homeless themselves, lol. The myth of the American Dream is killing people!!

      Honestly, HOW do billionaires sleep at night?

    • Mariah Bruce profile imageAUTHOR

      Mariah Bruce 

      6 weeks ago from Portland, OR

      Thank you so much for your comment!

      Yes, the pandemic has presented some interesting challenges for our homeless here in Portland, and I believe there is a good chance it will get worse.

      The City temporarily stopped doing their sweeps of homeless camps for a few months during the first month. The logic being that if they break up the camps, the people will disperse throughout the city, spreading the virus. But now they've just started up with the sweeps again, and the vast majority of these people do not have the supplies they need to protect themselves or others. Especially because people lose many of their belongings when their temporary homes are swept by authorities.

      It breaks my heart to see such a vulnerable group of people with no support. I try to remember that addiction and mental illness can happen to anyone, many homeless people just don't have the social support network that many of us have. There are times in my life I might have been homeless if it wasn't for help from family and friends. I believe that is the most important factor - but I wish I knew how I could help more people.

      Thanks so much for reading, Fran!

    • powers41 profile image

      fran rooks 

      6 weeks ago from Toledo, Ohio

      Mariah, I thank you for a truthful article on the homeless people. I agree that most of the problems began when the 'good minds' decided to close all the asylums and just shoved them out the doors. Many had no family, no support, no job so what could they do? When I think of all the greed and corruption among politicians, it makes my sick. I believe the problem is going to get even worse, especially with Coronvirous among us. Not sure what the solution but with graff all around, I don't know why politicians can't do more. These homeless need someone to care. Thanks for you article.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 

      7 weeks ago from Toronto, Canada

      "The sweeping process has been criticized because it can often be traumatizing for the city’s homeless, and cause them to lose what few precious belongings they have." - I remember stopping off a highway exit and giving money to a homeless person standing there. The light being red for me, I asked him how he was doing.

      "Not good", he said pulling out a long ticket out of his pocket, showing it to me. "Police gave me a ticket this morning and I'm already homeless. I can't pay this", he continued.

      Nothing gets better this way. Gentrification and police sweeps only send homeless people into hiding. Is this what we want in our societies? People hiding in sewers, under bridges, in hedges on the edge of cities?

      This is the shame we have to carry though, as societies and many people think if we can just get the problems out of sight, things will be better. "Out of sight, out of mind", right?

      And misguided at best, politicians are not taking the necessary measures to solve the problems of homelessness. These problems exist in all major cities around the world too. "Homelessness" is a battle we all still have to deal with.

      I appreciate You writing this. Thank You. All the best!


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