Oregon mayors demand more state help on homelessness

A coalition of 25 majors from across Oregon wants state leaders to play a more central role in the fight against homelessness.

In a letter sent Friday, mayors are urging Oregon lawmakers to spend more than $123 million a year on new efforts to help cities end homelessness. They also want state money, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars Oregon already spends each year on things like rent assistance, mental health and addiction services, and programs that convert vacant motels into apartments to help build emergency shelters and transitional housing.

“The number one problem across Oregon — in both rural and urban communities, large and small — is homelessness. We know this humanitarian crisis is affecting both those directly affected by homelessness and communities at large,” wrote the mayors, members of an Oregon Mayors Association task force addressing homelessness and the housing crisis. “Many jurisdictions have developed new programs, expanded service efforts, established regional partnerships and made significant investments from local general funds and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to respond to the homeless emergency. But this humanitarian crisis is beyond our individual capacities.”

The mayor says cities cannot solve the problem without more direct help from the state government. In the past, the state has supported local efforts and served as an intermediary to bring federal funds to local governments.

A post is posted near a group of tents in downtown Portland advising that the area will be swept on May 20, 2022.

A post is posted near a group of tents in downtown Portland advising that the area will be swept on May 20, 2022.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

The mayors of Portland, Beaverton, Bend and Eugene are among those who signed the letter. Willamette Week reports that Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler plans to announce a future ban on unauthorized camping and the creation of three 500-person campgrounds in the coming days, and has asked Multnomah County to pay for the camps and to to build.

The idea of ​​forcing people living outdoors to enter a shelter or camp, or face possible criminal charges, is controversial but is gaining political momentum as elected leaders hear from voters tired of tents and seeing the junk that accompanies mass public camping.

Two of the three main candidates for governor, former Rep. Christine Drazan, a Republican, and former Senator Betsy Johnson, who is running as a non-partisan candidate, have both advocated a harder line on homelessness, as has Rene Gonzalez. who will challenge Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty in the November 8 election. All three have received major financial backing from business leaders who support a tougher approach and have pushed Wheeler and other city leaders to clean up downtown Portland.

But it will also be expensive to force people into apartments or camps. Federal courts have repeatedly ruled that cities cannot criminalize homelessness if they cannot provide adequate housing, and both Multnomah County and the state as a whole currently do not have enough beds for everyone in need. The state also has a massive shortage of affordable housing. Recent estimates say Oregon needs at least 111,000 more housing units, mostly those that would help lower-income families.

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