Seattle’s big idea is to let the homeless camp legally in parts of the city. Another city just tried this. It was such a disaster it dropped the approach after only six months.
Eight months ago, our little brother city to the south, Portland, tried out an “all experimental” progressive effort to get a handle on its homelessness crisis.
Key to it was that rather than shooing the homeless from place to place, the mayor announced that big swaths of city rights-of-way and parking strips would instead be open to homeless overnight camping for the first time.
“We’re going to be tolerating some level of street homelessness, whether it’s in a doorway or a camp, until such time as we have enough shelter beds,” Mayor Charlie Hales said.
But only six months later, in August, Portland pulled the plug on its liberal camping experiment. The reason was, as I’m betting you’ll be able to guess: People started camping all over the place.
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Legal urban camping was a circus right from the beginning. An alternative newspaper sent its reporters out to camp on parking strips, including in front of the mayor’s house, and then published “A Field Guide to Urban Camping.” A coalition of business groups then sued.
But what happened on the ground was both dispiriting and, if you stop to think about it for even a second, entirely predictable: Camping boomed.
“In every part of town, seemingly permanent tent camps are forming,” Oregon Public Broadcasting reported two months after the “safe sleep” policy took effect.
The rules in Portland were designed to allow some camping, but not everywhere or at all times of day. You could set up a bedroll or tarp on most sidewalks or city rights-of- way, but you had to move during the day. Most park areas were to remain off-limits to tents.
But all anyone apparently heard was “free camping in Portland!”
Even in parks, camping took off. A homeless encampment in a greenbelt called Springwater Corridor grew exponentially, amassing 500 campers even though it was off-limits under the new policy.
“It’s likely the largest camp in the Northwest and possibly the nation, since Seattle cleared out much of their largest unauthorized homeless camp, the Jungle,” Portland’s Willamette Week reported in July.
The police became overwhelmed.
“It became very hard to enforce it just because of the sheer number of camps that came up all over the city, whether it was two or three tents or the larger encampments,” a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau said.
Portland reverted in August to the old “no camping” rules (which, as in Seattle, are enforced only sporadically). There is a big difference between tolerating some unauthorized camping and a message from the city that camping’s OK.
“People believed that camping was made legal, and outreach workers and law enforcement struggled to educate people about the difference between a safe night’s sleep and unsanctioned camping,” the Portland mayor’s office concluded in a statement.
So, lessons learned all around. Right?
Except 175 miles up Interstate 5, the big brother seems oblivious to what the little brother just went through.
The Seattle City Council not only appears poised to make camping legal across large parts of this city, they are doing this experiment on a much larger scale and for a longer trial period than Portland (two years here versus Portland’s six months).
Seattle released maps Friday showing that a proposed homeless ordinance would allow camping here on 167 miles of sidewalks, as well as in 5,200 acres of unimproved areas inside city parks and greenbelts. It includes the Arboretum and Seward, Discovery, Lincoln, Carkeek and Magnuson parks as well as dozens of other parks big and small in all parts of the city.
I don’t have answers to the homelessness issue either. My sense is we should discourage citywide camping. And at the same time put up sanctioned tiny house villages or steel modular housing units, so there are more stable temporary options, while we work on building more permanent housing. But this approach requires us to set and enforce rules and also has been rejected by the city’s homelessness consultants.
Instead, we’re going with what just bombed in the nearest big city to the south.
Seattle leaders have long been jealous of our little brother’s hipper, more progressive reputation. I don’t know if that’s it, but there’s got to be some explanation for why we’re copying what just failed.