A very Portland solution to homelessness: Give up

Sometimes you wish some of the things coming out of Portland City Hall were really just a bad Portlandia skit.

Like now, when the mayor’s solution to a downtown homeless camp is buy some land under a bridge where the city will relocate the homeless population. And get this:

  • The bridge is a very Portland bridge. Cars and trucks are not allowed, only mass transit, bikes, and pedestrians.
  • The bridge is called Tilikum Crossing: Bridge of the People. Yes—really—Bridge of the People. The mayor wants to put a homeless camp under the Bridge of the People.

But, it’s not a bad skit, it’s a bad idea. The following is an editorial, co-authored with Ann Sanderson and co-published on the Tuesday Memo blog.

Industrial Zones are No Place to Live

Late last month the Mayor’s office and Commissioner Amanda Fritz proudly announced that they were finalizing a deal with the Oregon Department of Transportation to purchase a half-acre lot near the landing of the new Tilikum Crossing Bridge of the People.  Once the deal is completed, the mayor intends to relocate the Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo) homeless population, which has been camping illegally on property at the entrance of downtown Portland’s Chinatown.

Fifteen years ago, when Charlie Hales was a city commissioner, a group of homeless men and women set up camp under the west end of the Fremont Bridge. They claimed the space was their “Dignity Village.” The were eventually moved to city owned space seven miles away from downtown. Fifteen years later the temporary camp is now a permanent settlement whose population is now out of sight and out of mind of Portland’s polite society.

Once relocated, Right 2 Dream Too would be deep in the heart of the Central Eastside Industrial District. Walk a quarter mile in most directions and you’ll be walking through industrial zoned land. Except west. If you walk west for a quarter mile, you’ll end up in the Willamette River.

While the Central Eastside Industrial District has changed a lot in the past few years, it has been and remains primarily an active hub for distribution and manufacturing, consistent with its industrial zoning.

The main purpose of zoning laws is to separate incompatible uses. The goal is to limit the impact of negative externalities and spillovers. When we think of incompatible uses and industrial land, we tend to focus on the noise, vibrations, and traffic associated with industrial uses. These noise, vibrations, and traffic disrupt homeowners and renters, so zoning keeps industrial and residential uses separate.

But, the spillovers go the other way, too. For example, increased pedestrian traffic creates a hazard in an active industrial area with heavy trucks and freight trains in action day and night. If people believe that they have a right to unimpeded access to an industrial area 24/7, accidents, including fatal accidents, can be expected to increase.

Last year in Multnomah County alone, 10 people were killed or injured while trespassing on railroad property. The site selected by Mayor Hales and Commissioner Fritz is only a few feet away from an active railway line. Even worse, residents of Right 2 Dream Too would have to cross the railroad tracks order to access the Eastbank Esplanade, Springwater Corridor, or to access a bridge crossing the Willamette River.

After years of industrial use, the land may be contaminated with toxins rendering the space unsuitable for a camping. Residents may have only a sleeping bag between themselves and the potentially contaminated land. Emissions from diesel electric trains and diesel trucks could cause or exacerbate respiratory illnesses in a population that is already subject to opportunistic diseases. What is the city’s long term liability for moving a homeless population to a potentially contaminated site? Will Portland taxpayers foot the bill when someone from Right 2 Dream Too claims that his or her lung cancer or emphysema came from years of living on city property next to the railroad tracks.

However, the real question is not where to put Right 2 Dream Too. The question is why? What went wrong with our city’s approach to it’s at-risk population that homeless camps like Right 2 Dream Too or Dignity Village became the preferred solution?

The city claims Right 2 Dream Too’s move is a temporary solution to a long term problem.  So was Dignity Village. As we’ve already seen after 15 years of Dignity Village, the structures may be temporary, but the camp has lived on for years. A tent city under a bridge is not housing and in no way does it represent an acceptable permanent solution to homelessness.

While immediate services and housing options need to be made available for Portland’s most vulnerable citizens, institutionalizing homeless by shifting residents to city-owned land is an admission of failure: It says “this is the best we can do.”

Portland calls itself The City that Works. We can do better. We must do better.

This post was co-authored with Ann Sanderson and co-published on the Tuesday Memo blog.