Wheeler: Portland not 'Tent City USA'
Reacting to a KGW-TV-commissioned poll that shows most Portlanders are dissatisfied with the city's response to homelessness, Mayor Ted Wheeler held a news conference Friday afternoon to assure residents that he and the rest of the City Council are fully aware of the problem and are working very hard to address it.
The poll was posted on the KGW-TV website after Wheeler scheduled the news conference. It originally was scheduled to be revealed in a Monday evening special titled "Tent City USA."
Wheeler's pre-emptive news conference revealed his frustration with the public's perception of the homeless situation in Portland. Wheeler prioritized homelessness when he ran for mayor in 2016, promising to provide enough shelter space for all people without permanent housing by the end of 2019.
But although Portland and Multnomah County has significantly increased spending on homeless services and affordable housing in recent years, the number of homeless has increased — and city residents are upset about the problem and the response to it, according the poll, which was conducted by Portland-based DHM Research.
According to the poll, 34 percent of Portlanders have considered moving out of the city because of the problem. Fifty-seven percent are dissatisfied with how Wheeler is addressing homelessness. Nearly the same percentage said they are dissatisfied with the Portland Police Bureau's response to homelessness, and 52 percent are dissatisfied with the city's business community's response. Fifty-one percent are dissatisfied with how local news organizations cover the issues, and 40 percent are dissatisfied with local service providers.
"Housing and homelessness have become the dominant issue in Portland," John Horvick, vice president and political director for DHM Research, told KGW-TV. "Mayor Wheeler has a long time before he's up for election again, but it's the most important issue that Portlanders have, and they're very frustrated with the mayor. It's a difficult position to be in."
In addition, when asked about Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, 46 percent said they are dissatisfied with how she's addressing homelessness.
During the news conference, Wheeler said he thought the title of the special was unfair because many major American cities have homeless problems — some far worse than the situation in Portland. He said homelessness is a symptom of larger problems — including unemployment and a lack of treatment for the mentally ill and drug addicts — that are beyond the ability of the city to solve.
"No mayor or city can do this alone," Wheeler said.
But Wheeler also said he understood the frustrations reflected in the poll, saying his office receives angry phone calls about it every day and that he can't go anywhere without someone bringing it up.
"While the homeless situation in Portland is unacceptable, it is not unique. The data doesn't bear that out," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also said the council has significantly increased funding for homeless services and affordable housing in recent years.
"Those investments are paying off. We have placed more people into housing every year, from 2,967 in 2014 to a record of 4,603 last year. We're on pace to beat that number again this year," Wheeler said.
The poll found Portlanders are skeptical about the results of the additional spending, however. Reflecting the title of the KGW-TV special, Portlanders perceive tent camping as a growing problem. According to the poll, 69 percent believe the number of people living in tents in Portland has increased in the past year. Ninety-two percent consider them a public health hazard without clean water, bathrooms or trash collection. Seventy-four percent said tent camping harms Portland's economy. And 49 percent said there currently are people living in tents in their neighborhoods. Many Portlanders feel negatively about aspects of tent camping.
And, despite city government's tolerance of homeless camping that began under former Mayor Charlie Hales, 61 percent said that allowing people to set up tents in public areas only encourages them to stay on the streets rather than seek permanent housing.
Portlanders did say there are options for homeless people that most would allow in their neighborhoods, however. Eighty-two percent said they would support building a permanent shelter that provides beds and services, and 75 percent would support building a temporary shelter that is open during the winter months only.
To learn more about the KGW-TV's report, go to: tentcitypdx.com