Portland’s mega-camp for homeless people could feature sleeping pods, not tents, mayor says

Portland’s mega-camp for homeless people could feature sleeping pods, not tents, mayor says

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he and other city leaders may turn from providing tents to sleeping pods at the first city-designated mass homeless camp, a decision that could pave the way for the project to securing government funding.

Wheeler made the revelation Tuesday at a virtual town hall with residents who live near the site of the future city-run camp, which is expected to open later this year on the Central Eastside near Powell Boulevard and Southeast 13th Avenue.

For months, the mayor has made tents a centerpiece of his vision to create six large outdoor shelters across Portland as part of a broader effort to reduce — and eventually ban — homeless camping in public places.

That could change, he said, after Gov. Tina Kotek expressed support for potentially helping the city pay for sleeping pods instead at what the mayor is now calling temporary alternative shelters. Unlike tents, sleeping pods qualify for state and federal operating money.

“Tents will work,” Wheeler said. “But if we can also find a quick way to finance and deliver pods – that would definitely be an improvement, from my perspective.”

The development comes a week after the mayor said in a letter to Kotek that the city’s encampments would not qualify for any of the program funding available in her $200 million emergency homelessness and housing spending plan, which the Legislature cleared Tuesday night.

Tents do not meet a number of the habitability requirements outlined in the governor’s proposal and spelled out in federal government standards, including doors that lock, as well as hard surface walls and roofs.

A county-based funding process overseen by an established coordination group will decide whether to allocate a portion of Multnomah County’s portion of the state package for Wheeler’s megacamp.

Elisabeth Shepard, a spokeswoman for Kotek, confirmed Wednesday that discussions between Kotek’s staff and Wheeler’s are ongoing and that the governor said she would likely support the addition of sleep pods through the provincial funding process.

Wheeler spokesman Cody Bowman said the city is open to exploring sleep pods and other options.

“We hope to play a role in deciding where these funds go,” he said. “We will advocate for investments to go to the mayor’s temporary alternative shelter sites if eligible.”

Last November, the Portland City Council earmarked $27 million to build and operate three of the six tent sites for a year, hire new homeless outreach workers and fund the city office that cleans and sweeps encampments.

The contract with California-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy to operate the first one, on the Central Eastside, will cost the city $5.1 million a year plus an additional $400,000 for startup costs. That does not include the cost of meals, utilities or site construction, which the city has committed to cover, according to city documents.

The mayor and city leaders say they hope to get three such sites up and running this year and build an additional three within the next two years.

Wheeler has conceded that Portland city coffers alone cannot fund the expensive six-site plan and has repeatedly lobbied Multnomah County, the Metro Regional Government and state lawmakers for help.

A poll of city residents conducted in late October by the Portland-based firm DHM Research found widespread support for the city’s efforts. Eighty-two percent of city voters polled said they favored the mayor’s plan to create large outdoor camps. Another 79% said they approve of a citywide camping ban.

Some homeless advocates and service providers, as well as many people living on the streets, oppose it, saying mass encampments are an inefficient use of money and resources and will further harm or traumatize some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. But most residents of a similar mega-tent encampment in south Los Angeles, run by the same nonprofit that Portland plans to use, said they would rather sleep there than on the streets without the same restrictions, conditions and support.

Democrats in Salem, including most of Portland’s delegation, have historically been leery of homeless encampments and have worked to limit the amount of state money that goes to fund them.

In addition to dramatically reducing unsanctioned street camping, Wheeler said the large city-run campgrounds will better connect vulnerable Portlanders to services they struggle to access while living among hundreds of encampments across the city.

As planned, each will provide safe and sanitary sleeping accommodation for up to 250 people plus access to meals, social services and housing navigation assistance. The Central East site will open with 100 sleeping units accommodating up to 150 residents. An Urban Alchemy mass tent site in Los Angeles that Portland officials visited before hiring the firm accommodates almost exactly one person per tent.

According to the mayor’s office, seven out of 10 people living on the streets interviewed by outreach workers said they would not go to a community shelter. However, eight out of 10 of those opposed to traditional shelter said in surveys they would go to an outdoor camp that offers safety and stability, as well as hygiene and social services.

An Oregonian/OregonLive survey last year found 95% of those living outside reported that no one offered them help finding temporary shelter or other services before being swept out of an area.

“It’s very informed by people with lived experience and what they say they need to get off and stay off the streets,” the mayor told The Oregonian/OregonLive in an interview last month. “We want to provide that. And the public wants to provide it too.”

— Shane Dixon Kavanaugh; 503-294-7632

Email at [email protected]

Follow on Twitter @shanedkavanaugh

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