Tuesday, August 23, 2016

5 Reasons Why Portland's Safe Sleep Policy Didn't Work

The Safe Sleep policy of Charlie Hale’s administration came to an abrupt “sunset” on August 2.  This ended an idea in which the city and the homeless might come to an agreement as to how public land, including sidewalks, might be utilized for sleeping. It came in a package with other stated benefits for the homeless, including storage for possessions, intentional campgrounds with porta potties and sanitation pick up.  Charlie Hales ended the policy, implying that the homeless didn’t follow through on their part of the deal.  There were more complaints than ever about trash, open drug use, tent fires and general chaos.

I agree that the Safe Sleep policy didn’t work, but I would add that it was never given the opportunity to work.  That the homeless were never included in process of making this policy a success.

1.  The policy wasn’t communicated well to the homeless
The mayor’s office created a half-sheet flyer which was intended to communicate to the homeless and advocates the details of the policy.  Unfortunately, it was filled with policy language and it was better understood by the police and policy makers than by those it was supposed to be communicating to.   For communication to the homeless, a writer used to working with homeless citizens should be used, so that the concerns of the homeless might be addressed.  The policy was communicated clearly to only a few homeless citizens, especially those placed in city-approved locations.  All others were forced to guess what exactly the policy meant. 

2. The policy wasn’t organized well
Homeless citizens, like every citizen of Portland, need certain shelter and certain possessions during the day as well as night.  Many of them cook their own food and live relatively independently.  The policy kept homeless citizens from their possessions during the day.  But even so, there was only two places for homeless citizens to keep their possessions during the day, and they were only accessible to a tiny minority of them.  There was insufficient sanitation pick up. 

If the mayor’s office had listened to the groups working with homeless camps, as well as they worked with lawyers, policy makers and the police, they would have understood the needs and the variety of locations of homeless citizens throughout the metro region.  They would have known what the lifestyles of the homeless really were and would have been able to draft a policy that would have been realistic for their homeless citizens and not just the idea of a single man with a backpack.

3. "Safety" had too many exceptions
Because the policy was enacted by the mayor’s office, there were many areas in Portland that were swept because they were outside the influence of the mayor.  Certain bureaus, ODOT, Metro and other agencies felt no requirement to follow the mayor’s policy.  Clean and Safe, who is contracted with the city through Central City Concern to clean up camps in the downtown area continued to sweep without halting.  Because there was no clear indication where the Safe Sleep policy was enforced, the homeless didn’t know where they could go to participate in it. 

4. The policy depended on volunteers to enforce it
The city only had a few employees to communicate with the homeless, and the police, not being social workers, didn’t see it as their job to communicate the mayor’s policy, so the city depended on a number of unfunded agencies to communicate the policy to the homeless.  Boots on the Ground, an organization of homeless advocates, would receive a list of homeless camps who were not in “compliance” and they would be told to re-organize the camps or else the camps would be swept.  Boots and other agencies and homeless communities were on hand to move the homeless to city-designated spots when there were too many complaints about them in one area.  And when they were set up in a designated spot, these agencies were also told to organize the camps and to keep the peace. If an area didn’t have a sanitation pick up, the volunteer organizations were asked to pick up trash.

Although these organizations did what they could, they did not have the staff to connect with the dozens of camps they were asked to organize.  They were not even given gas reimbursements, let alone with any funds to hire more staff, or to provide porta potties or trash bags.  The city drained these organizations without providing anything but more work to do.  Eventually the resources of the volunteer groups were reduced and they were no longer able to assist the city.

5. The policy was measured by public support
In the end, the measure of success of the policy didn’t depend on how well the homeless complied to the policy, but on the reduction of complaints to the city about the homeless.  The one area that the policy did succeed was in giving the homeless the false impression that they didn’t need to hide anymore.  The mayor’s office didn’t, and still does not, understand that homeless citizens to be acceptable to many of their housed neighbors, they would have to be hidden.  As long as they saw people sleeping in tents, there would always be some who assumed that defecation, trash, drug use came with it.  So the complaints increased, but there wasn’t confirmation that most of the complaints were realistic. 

There were many camps that were filled with trash and had needle caps.  But for the most part, the camps were never told, “You could stay here if you would just keep it clean.  Here are trash bags.  Fill them and set them on the side of the road and they will be picked up.” 

It is interesting, that the Safe Sleep policy did make one major difference among homeless citizens.  Many more of them clean up.  They get trash bags wherever they can and clean up their space.  They know that it is a basic requirement of them living in their space.

Many camps did major clean up.  But because the camp next to them did not, it was assumed that they were all the problem.  If an area of camps are swept there was a lot of “trash” left behind.  But that is the consequence of sweeps.  People have to leave essential possessions in a hurried sweep.

If the Safe Sleep policy were built with homeless leaders, if it were better communicated, if the city had paid workers to enforce it in a friendly and helpful way, if the policy were given more time to enact social change among the homeless population, despite public complaints, it would have worked.  As it stands, it is an example of poor government planning.

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