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Our communities need real housing solutions — not mass camps and arrests

Each night in the Metro Region, more than 6,600 Oregonians are forced to sleep outside or in shelters. It’s an unconscionable number that has grown significantly in recent years — with more and more people making impossible decisions as the cost of food and housing continue to rise.

We need a multi-pronged solution to the complex housing crisis in Portland and communities across the state. At Oregon Food Bank, we know that the best solutions come from those of us who have experienced hunger and poverty first-hand. And over the course of many years working in communities that disproportionately face food insecurity, we have heard loud and clear that housing and hunger are completely intertwined.

That’s why we advocate for known solutions to extreme poverty like affordable housing, living wages, and investments in mental health and addiction services.

While the plan proposed by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and allies on the City Council acknowledges these critical issues, people with lived experience have been clear that potential progress would be completely undercut by measures that deny the rights and humanity of thousands of Oregonians.

The plan will force thousands of Oregonians to live in mass camps — a move that has consistently led to greater human suffering throughout history. Existing outdoor dwellings will be dismantled and cleared, with former residents given no choice but to lose self-determination and potentially safety as they are moved to large-scale camps. Surveillance has been highlighted as a critical component of the plan, despite known harms. Yet details are scarce on whether the camps can accommodate families, if they will be accessible to people with mobility challenges, or how they will ensure the safety of LGBTQ+ individuals who already experience higher rates of harassment and violence.

“[People] with lived experience of houselessness told Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Ryan that mass camps aren’t just cruel, they actively make it harder for folks to get back on their feet. Why is the City rushing a proposal to criminalize houselessness when we have successful alternative models like Move-In Multnomah which is cheaper than congregate shelters — and houses people within weeks?” - Kaia Sand, Street Roots Executive Director

The plan will criminalize local residents facing extreme poverty who refuse to be forced into these camps. To date, the only stated alternative to living in mass camps is tickets, fines or outright incarceration — which courts have previously ruled as unconstitutional punishments. This increased involvement with the criminal legal system will only make it more difficult for people to access safe, permanent housing.

"Forcing hundreds of unhoused people into large, sanctioned camping sites with minimal services will cause irreparable harm and unnecessary deaths. I am deeply concerned with the involvement of law enforcement in relocating unhoused people to sanctioned camps will result in violence and the further criminalization of houselessness." - Margaux Weeke, former Communications Director & Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of Commissioner Dan Ryan

Making matters worse, the plan provides nowhere near the resources needed to support mental health, addiction or sanitation services within the camps — and it is certainly not enough to set people on the path to permanent housing. County leaders have recently pursued solutions that are more effective than the mayor’s plan, including investments in housing placement services and rental assistance to help families keep their homes.

“Back in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, we specifically moved to ‘housing first’…because mass sheltering was not working. It creates a cycle of homelessness and a revolving door of people going from the streets to shelter — all the while, creating long-lasting trauma that makes it harder for them to be successful in housing once we do place them. The research is very clear.” - Katrina Holland, JOIN Executive Director

Investing unprecedented taxpayer dollars in round-ups and mass camps does nothing to address our immediate housing crisis, let alone support people on a path to longer-term stability. Ticketing and jailing Oregonians who are struggling to survive outdoors does nothing to help us find the jobs and healthcare we need to thrive. These inhumane measures will undoubtedly widen disparities among Black, Indigenous and other People of Color in our region who already bear the burden of systemic injustices that have persisted for generations. As an organization that holds people experiencing hunger and poverty at the center of every decision we make, Oregon Food Bank cannot support any policy that we know will worsen the layered crises our communities face.

It is important that decision-makers focus on effective solutions to the challenges we face — and avoid known pitfalls like mass camps and criminalization that only worsen hunger and poverty in our communities. As Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Ryan seek support from regional and state leaders, we hope that they will more seriously consider the expertise of local residents who have experienced the housing crisis first-hand, as well as area service providers who have been working on these issues for many years.

“The ban infringes on the human rights of unhoused people and allows for our government to completely avoid accountability for the current housing crisis. In order to decrease camping in public spaces, the city of Portland, the mayor, the governor and all other government officials must tackle the root of the problem which is disenfranchisement of communities vulnerable to the housing crisis.” - Edom Daniel, OFB Policy Leadership Council Member

We know our government can do better for communities facing extreme hunger and poverty. Metro’s Supportive Housing Fund helped more than 1,600 people find stable housing in its first year, with another 9,000 avoiding houselessness altogether. Multnomah County Commissioners recently approved $15 million in funding for rent assistance and other housing supports.

Oregon Food Bank will continue to advocate for the programs and investments we know will make a difference — and we will push for the roll-back of harmful, unjust provisions that will worsen our region’s housing crisis. We look forward to continuing our work with elected leaders at all levels to ensure safe, affordable housing is accessible in rural, urban and suburban communities across Oregon.

TAKE ACTION TODAY

History has shown us time and time again that forcing hundreds of people into mass sanctioned camps is dangerous and dehumanizing. Yet Multnomah County Commissioners will soon decide whether to fund such camps.

Please join our partners at Community Alliance of Tenants and Welcome Home Coalition to urge Commissioners to reject funding mass camps — and to continue investing in effective, proven solutions. Add your name today!

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