Where will they go?
That always is the overriding question regarding homeless people in our community — or any other community. When critics demand that cities clean out encampments or prohibit tents in public spaces or remove homeless people from our sight — and, presumably our consciousness — the ideas are likely to strike a populist nerve.
But where will those people go? Telling them to leave should not be regarded as a solution to a problem that has deep roots in a lack of housing, substance abuse and mental health issues.
While that question always must be asked, it becomes particularly relevant for Clark County in the wake of policy changes from the city of Portland.
The Portland City Council last week approved a ban on daytime camping on public land. The ordinance also prohibits camping at all times near schools and other specific locations.
The need for such action is clear. Growing homelessness has been obvious for several years in Portland — as have the deleterious conditions that accompany the issue. Filth, graffiti, vandalism, open drug use and a general malaise have engulfed a city that not long ago was a shining symbol of vibrant, colorful creativity.
But telling a problem to go away does not fix that problem.
As OregonLive.com writes editorially: “The success of such actions depends on thoughtful follow-through to ensure those rules come with consistent outreach, access to a range of services, collaboration with nonprofit and government partners and judicious enforcement … Early indications from Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office are worrisome: After initially deflecting a question about where the mayor’s office expected thousands of homeless campers will go each day, Wheeler’s spokesman Cody Bowman responded that ‘as long as they are not camping, anywhere they please.’ ”
Such flippancy is not helpful. As OregonLive.com adds: “If the mayor’s office does not have a cogent answer for the intended consequences of a daytime camping ban, how will it possibly handle the unintended ones?”
Those unintended consequences could reach into Vancouver, where officials and residents have made significant efforts to deal with homelessness in recent years. A voter-approved property tax levy provides funding for the preservation and construction of affordable housing, and a series of Safe Stay communities have helped get our neighbors off the streets, with some of them transitioning to permanent housing.
Contrary to popular opinion, homelessness typically is not a result of unhoused people moving to a city they view as welcoming and rich with services. Various studies have shown that anywhere from 66 percent to 90 percent of homeless people previously resided in the same city where they are now homeless.
But the results of Portland’s effort to move homeless people will bear watching by officials in neighboring cities, including Vancouver. According to the most recent numbers, there are more than 6,000 unhoused people in Multnomah County; about 2,300 of them have no shelter, while the others reside in facilities.
Portland’s new law takes effect July 1. If rigidly enforced, it will have an impact throughout the region as unhoused residents seek new places to set up their tents. It also will require local governments to work across city borders and even state lines to coordinate outreach and relief efforts.
Moving people from Portland’s roadsides and sidewalks is a good idea. But it doesn’t answer the most pertinent question: Where will they go?