Shelter first

I see that the "People for Portland" – a political pressure group headed up by mostly anonymous Portland businesspeople – want the $200 million-plus-a-year Metro income tax for the homeless, the first annual installment of which is due in a couple of weeks, spent first and foremost to set up an emergency shelter system that would enable immediate elimination of tent camping from public places. PFP is proposing a ballot measure that would require that most of the tax money be used to create and maintain shelter beds, before it gets handed to apartment developer weasels for the long, slow process of building public-subsidized housing. 

Under the ballot measure, until there are enough emergency shelter beds available to satisfy the federal courts that homeless camp sweeps are not "cruel and unusual punishment," three quarters of the tax receipts would have to be spent on those beds. And the measure would also require that local anti-camping laws be enforced before the apartment projects can start getting the lion's share of the Metro tax revenue.

It makes perfect sense to me. The "housing first" people, who suggest we should do nothing about tent camping until there are nice little free apartments for everyone, are delusional. Apartment units are expensive to build, even when the waste and inefficiency of government projects are not present. Buying existing housing stock isn't all that cheap a solution, either. An existing apartment unit in Portland sells for about $220 a square foot thse days, I'm told. And so a 700-square-foot space costs north of $150,000, and that's just to buy it, not to maintain it or supply it with utilities. At $200,000 present value in cost for a unit, $200 million would buy you only 1,000 units each year, and of course, that's without the intense social services that many homeless people need, and without the bureaucratic waste factor.

There are way more people living on the streets, in the parks, and under the bridges in Portland than you can afford to put in free apartments. And many of them are mentally ill or addicted to drugs. The idea of giving them a private space to act out in, and an allowance to buy their substance of choice, doesn't seem like a productive use of money. Even if you made life better for many of the tent-dwellers, it would only attract more homeless people here. Which is not helpful, either.

The current network of nonprofits that get paid to deal with homeless people hate what the ballot measure would do. And you can bet they'll fight it tooth and nail. One of their criticims is that it "criminalizes homelessness." This has been quite an effective rallying cry for decades now, but I get the sense that the worm is turning: that most Portland voters want the streets and parks and roads back, even at the expense of twisting some arms. Many of the people currently crapping up the city's public spaces aren't going to move into a shelter voluntarily. And so the force of law will have to be brought to bear on them. What should be criminalized is not homelessness, but the refusal, for whatever reason, to live in an adequate shelter provided for free by the government. We can quibble about what is adequate, but somebody needs to get the politicians to admit that Portland isn't coming back until tent camping is a thing of the past.

The proposed ballot measure may be just a threat, but I'd sign a petition to put it up for a vote. We've had too many years now of this issue being handled by unqualified people like Deadly Deborah, Jo Ann With the Bullhorn, and Fall Guy Ryan. It's way past time to get real, before that $2 billion in taxes gets poured down the rat hole that awaits it.


  1. Yes, past time for this. The myth of the addiction and mental health crisis being one of affordable housing needs to be debunked once and for all. At the same time we can get rid of "I demand" Jo Ann.

  2. I think we should build large apartment buildings all in the same area. It has worked very well over the years in Chicago, Detroit, Philly, St. Louis... What could possibly go wrong?


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