Portland Ends Controversial 'Safe Sleep' Policy for Homeless

by | August 3, 2016

By Emily E. Smith

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales reversed course Tuesday on his controversial homeless policy that allowed tent camping and sidewalk sleeping.

Police now have his blessing to crack down on disruptive tent enclaves that spring up on city-owned land and draw a lot of complaints, he said.

But he told The Oregonian/OregonLive he does not want a citywide sweep of homeless camps, and campers who cause few problems for neighbors and need a place to sleep will likely be left in peace.

"What was true last night is also true tonight," Hales said. "We do not have enough shelter beds. Some people are going to sleep outside. Some people are going to put tents up."

Hales said he lifted his blanket "safe sleep guidelines" because some people mistook them for new law.

The policy, enacted in February, was meant to ensure homeless people could sleep through the night without being awoken for violating the city's camping ordinance.

Guidelines permitted tent camping and sidewalk sleeping in groups of six or fewer between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m. on city property. In many cases, people didn't move along in the morning.

"A policy that no one understands was not making the situation better," Hales said Tuesday.

"People believed that camping was made legal," the mayor's office said in a press release, "and outreach workers and law enforcement struggled to educate people about the difference between a safe night's sleep and unsanctioned camping."

Homeless advocates praised Hales' plan six months ago, lauding it for decriminalizing sleeping outside.

Hales said even with the change, homeless people will continue to be treated with compassion if their camp sites are not a nuisance, and they'll be provided with time and storage compartments if their camp is to be dismantled.

High-complaint areas will be the priority for enforcement, he said. Campers will receive 72 hours' written notice before their camp is swept, and any valuables found will be stored for retrieval.

One such area was targeted even before the Tuesday decision.

The city recently announced it would put a stop to camping along the Springwater Corridor, where the homeless population has reached an estimated 500 people in the past year. A sweep is planned for Sept. 1.

Those plans are unchanged by Tuesday's decision, Hales said.

A one-night count in 2015 showed 1,887 people were unsheltered and sleeping on Multnomah County streets. Another 872 were sleeping in shelters.

The city said it will work with social service providers and police to inform homeless campers of the priority locations for enforcement.

The end to the safe sleep policy was effective immediately, but Hales will convene a work group to continue examining the city's policies that impact people sleeping on the streets, his office said.

"Our message today is still dissonant," he said. "It's still illegal to camp in Portland, but there aren't enough shelter beds. That is an ambiguity we have to live in until we have enough shelter beds."

The City Council declared a homelessness emergency last fall, and Hales rolled out the safe sleep guidelines in February as part of several six-month pilot programs aimed at aiding the crisis.

Hales deemed successful a sanitation program, in which the city put out dumpsters and portable toilets for the homeless around the city.

He also expanded a storage program, which gave homeless people a place to secure belongings while they went to appointments or job interviews.

At least four people who were using the city's storage containers have moved into housing and found jobs, according to the mayor's office. The storage program was also credited with reducing complaints and preventing a large encampment from starting.

Another program that will continue is One Point of Contact, a system established to deal with complaints about homelessness. The system, which provides an online form, an app, and an email address for complaints, receives about 200 reports each week and has received more than 3,000 total, the city said.

Tony Hernandez of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report.

(c)2016 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)