Why Portland has the Worst Homeless Problem in the Nation
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.”
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.
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.