Oregon Health Forum attendees urged Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to immediately address public health crises such as hygiene, public defecation and exposure at a Thursday breakfast forum.
By: Jessica Floum
Community members, advocates and caregivers for the homeless urged Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to address the homeless population’s immediate need for hygiene services such as showers and porta potties in order to prevent a public health crisis.
Defecation on the streets poses a public health risk, and the inability for people without homes to shower and wash their clothes increases the likelihood of serious infections and illness that ultimately cost the health care system and taxpayers more money, they said.
When people living on the streets get sick, the mayor said, they get “really sick” and go to the hospital, which is one of the most expensive ways to get care.
The steep price of regular emergency room visits was among several topics related to Portland’s homeless crisis that Wheeler and others discussed at an Oregon Health Forum breakfast Thursday in Portland.
They also discussed the high costs of housing and services, how the community can contribute and ways to improve outreach to people living on the streets.
“Homelessness is the single largest issue facing us today in the community, across the West Coast and across the nation,” Wheeler said. People “want to know that their mayor is going to solve the problem.”
The mayor agreed that promoting public hygiene is important, but he said providing public showers was “ridiculously expensive” and porta potty companies will not rent to the city of Portland because their toilets have been trashed.
Wheeler later told The Lund Report that nothing is stopping businesses like Safeway from renting porta potties and putting them in their parking lots. That suggestion was one of many calls from the mayor on Thursday for community members to help him solve the homeless crisis.
He called on health officials, the business community, nonprofits and government partners to help him solve the crisis.
“Portland cannot continue to be the only fallback option or backstop when it comes to social services,” the mayor said, noting that the city does not have the same access to funding for social services that Multnomah County does and that Multnomah County also can’t cover the entire need.
But, he acknowledged, the buck stops with him.
“I feel personally responsible for addressing the homeless crisis in our community,” Wheeler said. “While I need those partnerships, it is on me to forge that alliance; and it is on me to convene the conversations that need to be convened; and it is on me to seek the resources necessary to solve the problems on our streets.”
The mayor said his best friend told him the other night that he had failed on homelessness, the top priority of his administration.
Wheeler defended the city’s progress, saying “a good chunk of my team does nothing but homelessness” and outlined the steps the city has taken to address the problem.
He noted that 6,000 people who were at risk of becoming homeless last year received rent assistance and other services and that an additional 6,000 people living on the streets got into housing. He said the city is halfway there on building or preserving 1,300 affordable homes. Of those, 600 of the apartments must be affordable to those who make 30 percent or less of the area median income.
Still, the mayor told the crowd of about 300 at the Multnomah Athletic Club that there is more work to do.
Wheeler proposed more aggressive outreach, suggesting that Portland’s opposition to “involuntary commitment” may have gone too far. He recalled a homeless woman who died in the shadow of a shelter during a snowstorm in the city in January 2017.
That year, 79 other people in Multnomah County died while living in the streets. The county tallied 14,000 homeless people last year, compared with 16,000 in 2011.
“If homeless people won’t come to us, we need to go to them,” Wheeler said.
The mayor said housing with services such as mental and physical health care, career support and addiction services is a necessary, but expensive investment. Last year, the city and county pledged to create 2,000 apartments with such services.
“When I talk about the cost of solving this problem, nobody likes that,” Wheeler said.
He said it costs about $60 per night to provide housing with services, which he said will ultimately cost less than sending homeless people to jail for $200 per night or to the hospital for an average of $900 a night.
“We could be saving a ton of money by providing a more robust social services network,” Wheeler said.
“It requires us to do something that is hard to do,” he added. “It requires us to get over ourselves.”
He commended faith leaders for their efforts to help the homeless. He suggested that the community, which owns a lot of property, use some of it to create homeless shelters and housing. Their parking lots, he said, are not used seven days a week.
A five-member panel of health, law enforcement and homeless services officials posed ideas for better serving Portland’s homeless after the mayor’s remarks.
Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, suggested sending Portland Fire Bureau officials to respond to emergencies of people experiencing homelessness. She attributed the idea to Portland city commissioner-elect Jo Ann Hardesty.
“What if we took the contact from people where things could go badly and shifted it to groups where their mission is about saving lives,” Sand said.
Portland architect Dave Otte said it’s important to educate the public on the long-term costs of housing with services. The community is more likely to support spending on building new housing and shelters, he said, because a building is something you can see. Providing services, will also require investment, he said.
Otte also said people need to be open to adding duplexes and accessory dwelling units to their neighborhoods.
“Many people want to fix the issue, but not many people want to be part of the solution,” Otte said.
Mike O’Mahoney, deacon at St. Mary Magdalene Church, accused Wheeler of lying, condemned the mayor’s decision to sweep homeless camps and urged the mayor to take more immediate action.
“We’re calling it an emergency and we’re sitting in the Titanic in the ballroom and saying maybe we should build some more lifeboats,” O’Mahoney said.
“Sweeps,” where city officials force people living in tents on the street to break down their camps leave people with nowhere to go, he said.
Wheeler defended the city’ process for removing camps as humane. He said city officials notify camps of an impending sweep 24 hours to seven days in advance. Then, social service workers try to get camp members connected with services. Finally, city officials notify the campers when they plan to break down the camps so that dwellers can avoid being there when “the cleanup crews arrive.”
Wheeler said that social workers involved in a sweep connect campers with services “the vast majority of the time.”
O’Mahoney contended that it doesn’t matter how nice the police officers or social workers are if people are not allowed to stay where they are and have nowhere to go.
He said sweeps also leave homeless people who have been admitted to hospitals or booked in jail with even fewer options once they get out.
“When you’re discharging someone on the street, it’s not like they’re going to go back to their tent,” O’Mahoney said. “They are going to go back and their tent is not going to be there.”
When people know that homeless services organizations like Central City Concern aren’t able to find them housing, they are more like to reject mental health and addiction services, said Dr. Andrew Mendenhall, the senior medical director of substance use disorder services at Central City Concern.
“Often when patients are told there is not a place for them to go, they leave our facility before they are able to be mentally stabilized,” Mendenhall said.
The deacon said that ending sweeps and addressing immediate needs such as porta potties, showers, laundry facilities and food will help lower “the tensions on the street.” O’Mahoney said that would buy the city more time to find and build affordable housing.
Portland Deputy Police Chief Bob Day called the police the most robust 24-hour social service, but said others are likely more equipped to handle social service needs.
“These aren’t police matters,” Day said. “These aren’t police issues, but the police are being confronted with them everyday.”
Wheeler told forum attendees that he intends to stay focused on the solving the homeless crisis.
“I approach it with seriousness,” Wheeler said. “I approach it with urgency, and I approach it with open arms to anyone who wants to address this problem.”
THIS EVENT WAS ON THE AIR
Thank you to Oregon Public Broadcasting and, specifically, the show Think Out Loud for covering this event. To hear their segment about our discussion of Portland homelessness, click here.