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Oregon mayors push state for emergency homeless shelter money amid camping crackdown

A line of tents on a busy Portland street. Last week, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced a planned crackdown on homeless camps near busy roadways.
Kristian Foden-Vencil
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A line of tents on a busy Portland street. Last week, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced a planned crackdown on homeless camps near busy roadways.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is leading a lobbying effort to pressure the state to immediately fund temporary homeless shelters a week after announcing a planned crackdown on homeless camps near busy roadways.

Wheeler joined Mosier Mayor Arlene Burns and Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis in introducing the idea to other mayors at a Friday call for the League of Oregon Cities, a coalition that lobbies the Oregon legislature. The three leaders said they wanted to unite in pushing the governor to fund emergency homeless shelters across Oregon.

The effort comes on the heels of Wheeler’s emergency order, which bars homeless individuals from camping on dangerous high-crash corridors in the city. The policy change left open the question of where people camping are supposed to go with the region’s homeless population far outnumbering available shelters beds in the region.

Wheeler has pinned the blame for the lack of beds on state leaders, who he said have underinvested in temporary shelters compared to neighboring states. He repeated the talking point in remarks to his fellow mayors Friday, saying the effort by Oregon paled in comparison to the amount of money thrown at the issue in Washington and California.

“We need the state government to step up and match the funding levels to expand temporary shelter space now and save lives,” Wheeler said. “This is an Oregon issue, not just a Portland issue.”

Currently, Multnomah County has the capacity to shelter roughly 1,400 to 1,500 people year-round. There were about 4,000 people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County in 2019, the last time there was a finalized count of the area’s homeless population.

Wheeler said he had rejected a recent offer by Brown for $12 million for cleanup efforts because it put no money toward shelters. He also vowed to oppose any “Portland-only solution” to the crisis coming out of the governor’s office that did not fund homeless services in other cities.

Governor spokesperson Charles Boyle’s office said that it was not an offer made from the Governor to the mayor, but rather part of a discussion on trash clean-up along with Metro President Lynn Peterson, and Multnomah Chair Deborah Kafoury. He said the proposal will be put before the legislature, and they are asking “for the City’s support in joining to pass that proposal.”

Boyle said addressing Oregon’s housing crisis was one of the governor’s “top priorities” and that she was pursuing “the same evidenced-based strategies to address housing and homelessness issues as our West Coast neighbors.” He said they had not seen the proposals by the mayors, but would review it if brought to the legislature.

Portland leaders have struggled to find locations for the homeless shelters already in the pipeline. City Commissioner Dan Ryan has spent the better part of a year trying to construct six large outdoor shelters. His office initially planned for the shelters to be finished at the end of 2021. None have been built and only three locations finalized.

The Oregon mayors said Friday they were pushing for the state to allocate the funding in the legislature’s ongoing session, which gives them less than one month to bring the governor and state legislature on board. The short session must end March 7. Wheeler and other mayors said they were aiming to make a proposal for the governor next week.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.