SEATTLE - Makeshift shelters abut busy roadways, tent cities line sidewalks, tarps cover broken-down cars, and sleeping bags are tucked in storefront doorways. The reality of the homelessness crisis in Oregon’s largest city can’t be denied.
"I would be an idiot to sit here and tell you that things are better today than they were five years ago with regard to homelessness," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said recently. "People in this city aren’t stupid. They can open their eyes."
As COVID-19 took root in the U.S., people on the street were largely left on their own — with many cities halting sweeps of homeless camps following guidance from federal health officials. The lack of remediation led to a situation that has spiraled out of control in many places, with frustrated residents calling for action as extreme forms of poverty play out on city streets.
Wheeler has now used emergency powers to ban camping along certain roadways and says homelessness is the "most important issue facing our community, bar none."
Increasingly in liberal cities across the country — where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated — leaders are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to address homelessness that would have been unheard of a few years ago.
In Seattle, new Mayor Bruce Harrell ran on a platform that called for action on encampments, focusing on highly visible tent cities in his first few months in office. Across from City Hall, two blocks worth of tents and belongings were removed Wednesday. The clearing marked the end of a two and a half week standoff between the mayor and activists who occupied the camp, working in shifts to keep homeless people from being moved.
In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a pilot program over the summer to permanently clear several homeless camps. In December, the initiative faced a critical test as lawmakers voted on a bill that would ban clearings until April. It failed 5-7.
In California, home to more than 160,000 homeless people, cities are reshaping how they address the crisis. The Los Angeles City Council used new laws to ban camping in 54 locations. LA Mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino has introduced plans for a ballot measure that would prohibit people from sleeping outdoors in public spaces if they have turned down offers of shelter.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in December in the crime-heavy Tenderloin neighborhood, which has been ground zero for drug dealing, overdose deaths and homelessness. She said it’s time to get aggressive and "less tolerant of all the bull—- that has destroyed our city."
In Sacramento voters may decide on multiple proposed homeless-related ballot measures in November — including prohibiting people from storing "hazardous waste," such as needles and feces, on public and private property, and requiring the city to create thousands of shelter beds. City officials in the area are feeling increasing pressure to break liberal conventions, including from an conservation group that is demanding that 750 people camping along a 23-mile (37-kilometer) natural corridor of the American River Parkway be removed from the area.
Advocates for the homeless have denounced aggressive measures, saying the problem is being treated as a blight or a chance for cheap political gains, instead of a humanitarian crisis.
Donald H. Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said at least 65 U.S. cities are criminalizing or sweeping encampments. "Everywhere that there is a high population of homeless people, we started to see this as their response."
Portland’s homeless crisis has grown increasingly visible in recent years. During the area’s 2019 point-in-time count — a yearly census of sorts — an estimated 4,015 people were experiencing homelessness, with half of them "unsheltered" or sleeping outside. Advocates say the numbers have likely significantly increased.
Last month Wheeler used his emergency powers to ban camping on the sides of "high-crash" roadways — which encompass about 8% of the total area of the city. The decision followed a report showing 19 of 27 pedestrians killed by cars in Portland last year were homeless. People in at least 10 encampments were given 72 hours to leave.
"It’s been made very clear people are dying," Wheeler said. "So I approach this from a sense of urgency."
Wheeler’s top adviser — Sam Adams, a former Portland mayor — has also outlined a controversial plan that would force up to 3,000 homeless people into massive temporary shelters staffed by Oregon National Guard members. Advocates say the move, which marks a major shift in tone and policy, would ultimately criminalize homelessness.
"I understand my suggestions are big ideas," Adams wrote. "Our work so far, mine included, has … failed to produce the sought-after results."
Oregon’s Democratic governor rejected the idea. But Adams says if liberal cities don’t take drastic action, ballot measures that crack down on homelessness may emerge instead.
That’s what happened in left-leaning Austin, Texas. Last year voters there reinstated a ban that penalizes those who camp downtown and near the University of Texas, in addition to making it a crime to ask for money in certain areas and times.
People who work with the homeless urge mayors to find long-term solutions — such as permanent housing and addressing root causes like addiction and affordability — instead of temporary ones they say will further traumatize and villainize a vulnerable population.
The pandemic has added complications, with homeless-related complaints skyrocketing in places like Portland, where the number of campsites removed each week plummeted from 50 to five after COVID-19 hit.
The situation has affected businesses and events, with employers routinely asking officials to do more. Some are looking to move, while others already have — notably Oregon’s largest annual golf tournament, the LPGA Tour’s Portland Classic, relocated from Portland last year due to safety concerns related to a nearby homeless encampment.
James Darwin "Dar" Crammond, director at the Oregon Water Science Center building downtown, told the City Council about his experience working in an area populated with encampments.
Crammond said four years ago the biggest security concerns were vandalism and occasional car break-ins. Now employees often are confronted by "unhinged" people and forced to sidestep discarded needles, he said.
Despite spending $300,000 on security and implementing a buddy system for workers to safely be outdoors, the division of the U.S. Geological Survey is looking to move.
"I don’t blame the campers. There are a few other options for housing. There’s a plague of meth and opiates and a world that offers them no hope and little assistance," Crammond said. "In my view, where the blame squarely lies is with the City of Portland."
In New York City, where a homeless man is accused of pushing a woman to her death in front of a subway in January, Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to start barring people from sleeping on trains or riding the same lines all night.
Adams has likened homelessness to a "cancerous sore," lending to what advocates describe as a negative and inaccurate narrative that villainizes the population.
"Talk to someone on the street and literally just hear a little bit about their stories — I mean, honestly, homelessness can happen to any one of us," said Laura Recko, associate director of external communications for Central City Concern in Portland.
And some question whether the tougher approach is legal — citing the 2018 federal court decision known as Martin v. City of Boise, Idaho, that said cities cannot make it illegal for people to sleep or rest outside without providing sufficient indoor alternatives.
Whitehead, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, thought the landmark ruling would force elected officials to start developing long-term fixes and creating enough shelter beds for emergency needs. Instead, some areas are ignoring the decision or finding ways around it, he said.
"If cities become as creative about solutions as they are about criminalization, then we could end homelessness tomorrow," he said.
Cline is a corps 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 undercovered issues.