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Wheeler: Important to 'act at scale' on homeless camps

Wheeler: Important to 'act at scale' on homeless camps

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) -- With a ban on unsanctioned camping approved by Portland's city council, the work begins on what the 6 sanctioned camps around the city will look like -- and they're getting input from the neighborhood associations that could soon be home to the camps.

"It's important we act at a scale that addresses this issue. Poll after poll after poll has shown this is the Number 1 issue in the city," Mayor Ted Wheeler said during a meeting with city stakeholders. "We have to be aggressive, we have to act at scale, we have to do everything we can connect people to as many people as possible to services, and we need to go about the business of reducing and ultimately eliminating self-directed unsanctioned camps in the city of Portland."

The ban on unsanctioned camping and set-up of the 6 sanctioned camps will be phased in over the next 18 months as the city now looks for sites with at least 3-4 acres to place the camps.

"Currently there are about 800 camps spread, scattered throughout the 146 square miles that is the City of Portland," Wheeler's Chief of Staff Sam Adams said during the meeting. He added that while the sanctioned camps will only house a maximum of 1500 people total at any given time, it's a first step.

"We need more than that but the goal is also to get, to connect more people with treatment so that we help people get off the street," Adams said.

The sanctioned camps will start off with around 100-150 people, eventually maxing out at 250 people, and will include sanitation facilities, security and connections to physical, mental and behavioral health services. Drug and alcohol use won't be allowed in common areas or public spaces. Fires for cooking will not be allowed as the city plans to provide two meals and a "hefty snack" to those in the camps each day.

There will also be weekly trash clean-up and they will have a zero tolerance policy for weapons, which will be checked at the camps' single entrance and exit.

In a discussion with local neighborhood and business associations, some brought up concerns of criminal screening. Those deemed a danger to themselves or others will not be allowed in, city officials said.

It is unclear how those people will be screened and what options will be given to people who are refused entry. Others want those who are unhoused to be a part of the camps' planning.

Asked by one person if homeless people would have a "word in how they're put together" and have the "same opportunities" as those at the meeting, Adams answered yes.

One neighborhood association even suggested the city repurpose land it already owns, including a police impound yard in the northwest industrial region.

"There's already electricity and plumbing, it's right next to the forest and I just think it would be really healing," said Sarah Taylor, president of the Linnton Neighborhood Association. "There's already some buildings that could be used for drug and alcohol treatment or different things they might need a building for."

Taylor said it's important for everyone to speak with their residents and find ways to help or create solutions, whether by making a food pantry or hosting a sanctioned campsite.

"I have long thought that each neighborhood association should kind of survey their neighborhood and think, how could they help," said Taylor. "I think we should each think of a solution in our neighborhood."

As for how to pay for these sanctioned camps and treatment services, Mayor Wheeler asked City Council to approve a $27 million down payment to initially fund the camps. They are expected to vote on it during Thursday's council meeting.

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