Portland Is Spending Millions to Remove Tents from Its Sidewalks. Why Is the County Handing Out More?

John DiLorenzo noticed something odd this spring when he received a quarterly report from the City of Portland showing its progress clearing homeless camps from its sidewalks.

From last July through the end of March, reports show that Oregon's largest city had removed 4,182 campsites, mostly from the sidewalks.

Because the city estimates that the average homeless campsite includes at least three tents, it is likely that over those nine months at least 12,000 tents were cleared from the city's property, DiLorenzo said.

"It dawned on me: Wait a minute, 12,000 tents is more than we have homeless people on the street," said DiLorenzo, a lawyer who sued the city in 2022 on behalf of residents with disabilities and visual impairments who need clear sidewalks to get around.

As part of a settlement agreement last year, the City of Portland agreed to prioritize removing campsites that block sidewalks and to establish a system to report problematic camps. The city also agreed to stop distributing tents and tarps to homeless residents, with limited exceptions, including exceptions during severe weather events.

DiLorenzo told National Review that he believes the city is "really doing a good job" living up to its end of the agreement. Still, he wanted to find out why, despite those efforts, there were still tents clogging the sidewalks in some parts of the city.

He thinks he now knows: Multnomah County's Joint Office of Homeless Services.

According to county data, between May 2, 2023, and May 31, 2024, the Joint Office distributed loads of camping gear from its warehouse, mostly to dozens of nonprofits and religious organizations who provide aid to the region's homeless. Those supplies included: 6,492 tents, 6,635 sleeping bags, 23,928 tarps, 16,980 rain ponchos, and 35,283 blankets.

Critics say the county is perpetuating a costly cycle: The city spends millions of dollars clearing homeless encampments only for the Joint Office to spend millions more providing those same homeless residents with replacement tents, tarps, and sleeping supplies. The revelation has exposed further division and distrust between city and county leaders, who are increasingly at odds over their homeless response.

Over the past few years, as sprawling homeless camps took over Portland parks and sidewalks, the Democrats who lead the far-left city have moved to the center on the issue, taking a decidedly less-permissive approach to homeless camping in an effort to to improve its national image and make the city more livable. The city is now paying a contractor $26 million to clear homeless camps from city property, according to media reports.

DiLorenzo said polls show that even many progressive Portland residents are tired of "warehousing people outdoors." Multnomah County leaders, on the other hand, continue operating in a left-wing "ideological echo chamber," he said.

County and Joint Office leaders say that while they would prefer that no one live unsheltered, providing the homeless with camping gear is a "humane" and "defensive" response while they continue to increase the region's shelter capacity.

But city leaders, fed-up residents, and their advocates say that providing the homeless with tents and other camping gear "enables self-destructive behaviors" and incentivizes people to stay outdoors, jamming up sidewalks and fouling public parks. The county, they say, is actively hindering their efforts to keep the city clean and to abide the settlement.

"This dissonance doesn't work," DiLorenzo said. "It's like trying to mop up a water spill, and the guy upstairs won't turn off the faucet."

Some Portland leaders are now pushing for the city to pull out of its intergovernmental agreement with the county to help fund the Joint Office, which was established in 2016 to centralize planning, policy, and funding for homelessness programs.

The current contract expires at the end of the month. Under a proposed extension, the city is expected to contribute $25 million next year and $31 million the following year to fund the Joint Office, though that is just a fraction of its $400 million budget.

While the city contributes millions of dollars every year, county leaders largely direct the Joint Office's operations. "The city is just along for the ride," said DiLorenzo, an advocate for the city discontinuing the partnership.

Mayor Ted Wheeler is a proponent of continuing with it.

"The way I view it is, by making this investment we get to shape policy and priorities at the Joint Office, and we get access to steering ten times the amount of funding we are putting in," he said during a city council meeting last week. "I actually view it as a good investment, provided that we hold the Joint Office accountable and continue to be able to shape their work in a manner that's consistent with our goals here at the city of Portland."

Commissioner Mingus Mapps said the city shouldn't have to pay the county to have a say in the regional homeless response.

"The fact that we're handing over $31 million just for the right to sit at the table, I'll suggest there's something still kind of wrong about what we're doing here," he said.

Some Portland commissioners say their continued participation in the Joint Office must hinge on the county agreeing to abide by their settlement agreement. They're expected to vote on extending their partnership on Wednesday.

Jessica Vega Pederson, the chairwoman of the Multomah County commission, did not respond to a phone call or emailed questions from National Review. She told local media that distributing tents and tarps to the homeless is all "part of having a humane response to those living on our streets" and that county leaders' goal is "helping people to survive until there is enough treatment and shelter available."

As of January, there were about 11,000 homeless people in Multnomah County,  about 5,400 of whom were unsheltered, according to a recent city audit.

Dan Field, the Joint Office's director, told the city council last week that he's also frustrated "with tents and tarps as a symbol of our inability to shelter people in our community."

"There's not anybody that is actively supporting more tents and tarps," he said. "It's clearly a defensive strategy to keep people safe."

As of now, the county seems intent on sticking with the strategy: The county's $4 billion 2024-25 budget includes $230,000 to continue distributing tents.

Field told the city council that he doesn't believe most of the tents on the city's sidewalks came from the Joint Office’s warehouse. And he attempted to deflect blame for the ones that have.

"The Joint Office doesn't actually hand out tents," he said. "We make them available to 88 separate organizations that access our supply center and pick up a wide range of supplies."

According to the county data, Central City Concern, a large Portland-area nonprofit aimed at "ending homelessness by treating the whole person," received more tents (260), tarps (680), and blankets (968) than any other Joint Office.

It's unclear what the nonprofit did with those supplies or what efforts, if any, they took to prevent them from clogging Portland parks and sidewalks.

Attempts by National Review to reach Andy Mendenhall, the nonprofit's president and CEO, by email on the phone were unsuccessful. A Central City Concern spokeswoman provided a statement that did not answer any of the questions NR posed in an email.

"Our approach is always evidence-based, and we know that there is no one single way to help someone who is homeless," spokeswoman Juliana Lukasik said in an email.

Mark Anthony Guzman, the executive director of the volunteer-run Meals on Us PDX declined to discuss what his organization did with the 100 tents, 388 tarps, and 548 blankets it received from the Joint Office during the period that NR reviewed.

Guzman seemed to defend his organization's approach of helping homeless people to continue living outdoors, saying that some people can't live in shelters.

"If we're talking about hoarding a bunch of people together and putting them into empty rooms or gyms, that's not the way to do it," he said. "Hoarding human beings like cattle, just to rope them all into one situation, you know what that's called? That's called a prison."

Guzman refused to answer any questions, accused a National Review reporter of being "very anti people needing emergency supplies to survive," and then hung up.

The county's data also suggest that Field's claim that the Joint Office doesn't directly hand out camping supplies to the homeless may not be true. According to the data, the county provided 735 tents, 2,940 tarps, and 6,078 blankets to individuals during severe weather.

Rene Gonzalez, a Portland commissioner and candidate for mayor who has called for banning homeless camping citywide, said during last week's meeting that "the uncontrolled distribution of tents and tarps and harm-reduction tools on the streets of Portland must end."

"I want to be crystal clear: My expectation is we are seeing a dramatic reduction in the distribution of tents and tarps in the city of Portland, irrespective as to the shelter capacity," he said. "This is long overdue. Twenty-four thousand tarps distributed in the last year is completely unacceptable under any circumstances in the city of Portland."

Attempts by National Review to reach Gonzalez were unsuccessful. He told the Oregonian that "the county's approach to the unsheltered homeless population, while well intentioned, continues to perpetuate an environment that enables self-destructive behaviors."

DiLorenzo disagrees with the county's contention that distributing tents is "humane."

"All the county can come up with is, 'It's saving lives, it is more humane to hand out tents,'" DiLorenzo said. "And our rejoinder is, 'No, that's the least humane policy. That encourages and enables people to stay outdoors.'"

He also pushed back on the idea that Portland's homeless residents have nowhere to go. While a recent city audit found that local shelters are generally full, hard to access, and have long wait lists, DiLorenzo said that’s not the case at all area shelters.

"There is enough shelter space. There isn't the type of shelter space the people living in the tents want," he said. "They don't want to go to any place that has any rules."

"So what the county is saying is, there are not a lot of indoor shelter spaces that allow them to use drugs," DiLorenzo said.

A 2022 report by local NBC affiliate KGW8 found that while Portland had one of the nation's highest shelter-occupancy rates, hundreds of publicly-supported Portland shelter beds aren't used most nights. One shelter had an occupancy rate of 55 percent that June.

One homeless resident told the station that he didn't want to go to a shelter because "being out here, it's freedom." One man said that living outside allowed him to "sleep in a nice area." Another homeless man said that "there's too much stimulation" in a shelter.

Residents who spoke at last week's council meeting called handing out tents to homeless people a "failed experiment" driven by "a lot of ideology, not a lot of practicality."

"I have personally had tents and tarps abandoned on my property," said one woman, a Portland resident and small-business owner. "I am left to clean up the mess and dispose of any garbage left behind, including any paraphernalia, the throw-up, all that."

"Ironically, I had to actually move a very inebriated person off my front gate to even get here this morning," said one man who opposed the tent-distribution policy.

DiLorenzo doesn't buy that Portland's homeless crisis is driven by a lack of housing. "The people who are outside have severe mental-health issues or are hopelessly addicted to drugs. They can't pay any rent," he said.

He said he believes that many area's homeless take the path of least resistance. If they're provided with tents and camping gear, it's easier to remain outdoors.

"If there are no tents and tarps available, more people will get frustrated with that and will choose the indoor alternative," he said. "Which is what we want."

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Portland Is Spending Millions to Remove Tents from Its Sidewalks. Why Is the County Handing Out More?

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