Portland: ‘Rip City’ for winners, the jungle for the losers

(Photos taken three blocks apart. Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)

Last week I attended an event where participants discussed the regional crisis around homelessness. The City of Portland has already declared a housing crisis, to confront rents that are climbing fastest here than any city in the country. The average rent has climbed more than 40 percent since 2010 (data from 2015, and only worse since). The Guardian newspaper in February reported “shelter for the homeless has become anything but discrete.” The Guardian reported: “Portland saw rents appreciate nearly 15% in 2015 – the highest increase in the nation – with an average rent of $1,689 per month, according to real estate company Zillow. Five years ago, it was around $980.” A person I heard at the forum I attended described the tent communities positively, even one downtown at the entrance to Chinatown, for being self-run. Others I know have described such shantytowns as frightening, particularly for single women walking by. The person who shared their concerns with me about the Chinatown situation travels by that shantytown everyday (and, yes, I will call them shantytowns).

Tents encampments are widely visible under most overpasses, under bridges, in rights of way like the Springwater corridor, and in public parks. There is nothing sanitary about them. Trash is strewn all around them, and it is doubtful the residents of these tent encampments are using sanitary systems to dispose of human waste. Many of these residents also have drug and mental health issues. And the situation has grown dramatically more visible since I first arrived in September 2014.

Some places once that had green spaces on state right of ways now have a tent encampment of at least 15 units, all over the city. In February, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales legalized camping by homeless residents. Portland and Multnomah County claim they will spend up to $30 million to fight homelessness and offer more affordable housing. But that will not happen til July this summer. We will see what happens.

Seattle’s Mayor, Ed Murray, has taken on tent cities as failures, and his hired expert claims tent cities prolong the homeless problem without solving it. This came after a shooting at Seattle’s notorious “jungle,” which attracted national attention. In that attack in January this year, two were shot dead, and three badly wounded. One known encampment for homeless residents on the Springwater Corridor trail, in nearby Gresham, was the scene of a reported sexual assault by a recently released ex-convict, who was apprehended the same day, on March 25, about a half mile from my house. As someone who once passed homeless encampments every day for two years in Seattle and who sees homeless encampments every week in Portland, I do not have a magic solution. The housing bubble is certainly a root cause to the crisis, along with national economic issues and income inequality, plus regional market forces. So long as rents continue climbing in cities like Portland and more Americans cannot find stable housing with low paying jobs, they will flock to the Northwest, and its many mini-jungles, along with the more brutal Skid Row in Los Angeles, home to an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 homeless.

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