Liberal US cities change course, now clearing homeless camps

Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_10877 City of Seattle workers remove tents, trash, and personal belongings from a stretch of sidewalk across from City Hall that had been used by people experiencing homelessness, on March 9, 2022, in Seattle. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_08052 A sign on a shelter reads "Unconditional Housing for All End the Sweeps" as city of Seattle workers remove tents, trash, and personal belongings from a stretch of sidewalk across from City Hall that had been used by people experiencing homelessness, on March 9, 2022, in Seattle. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_73937 FILE - In this aerial photo taken with a drone, tents housing people experiencing homelessness are set up on a vacant parking lot in Portland, Ore., on Dec. 8, 2020. In Feb. 2022, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, banned camping on the sides of certain roadways, and officials are exploring other aggressive options to combat homelessness. In an increasing numbers of liberal cities like Portland, Seattle and New York, officials are cracking down on encampments after years of tolerating growing numbers of people living in tents.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_88344 FILE - A person sleeps next to a shopping cart as a pedestrian walks past a store-window sign advertising the future opening of a Rolex watch store on Jan. 31, 2022, in downtown Seattle. In Feb. 2022, the mayor of Portland, Ore., banned camping on the sides of certain roadways, and officials are exploring other aggressive options to combat homelessness. In an increasing numbers of liberal cities like Portland, Seattle and New York, officials are cracking down on encampments after years of tolerating growing numbers of people living in tents.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_74775 Tents and other shelters used by people experiencing homelessness stand along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, Calif., Feb. 24, 2022. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York, Seattle and other cities are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_19833 FILE - Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler poses for a photo, Aug. 5, 2019, in Portland, Ore. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago. In early 2022, Wheeler used emergency powers to ban camping on the sides of certain roadways in the city.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_94296 FILE - Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, center, talks to supporters at an election night rally, Nov. 2, 2021, in Seattle as his wife, Joanne Harrell, right, looks on. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago. Harrell ran on a platform that called for action on encampments and the city has focused on certain highly visible tent cities in his first few months in office. Across from City Hall, two blocks worth of tents and belongings were removed Wednesday, March 9, 2022.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_20435 Sean Barry covers his tent with a plastic tarp to help shield him from cold temperatures as prepares for the night in downtown Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2022. In Feb. 2022, the mayor of Portland, Oregon, banned camping on the sides of certain roadways, and officials are exploring other aggressive options to combat homelessness. In an increasing numbers of liberal cities like Portland, Seattle and New York, officials are cracking down on encampments after years of tolerating growing numbers of people living in tents.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_54557 FILE - Tents line the sidewalk on SW Clay St. in downtown Portland, Ore., on Dec. 9, 2020. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_21334 FILE - A man sleeps in a subway car in New York on Feb. 21, 2022. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams is making a push to try to remove people experiencing homelessness from the city's sprawling subway system with a plan to start barring people from sleeping on trains or riding the same lines all night.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_40261 A person at left walks toward the entrance of a tent used by people experiencing homelessness, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in downtown Seattle across the street from City Hall. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_02759 A person walks past a tent used by people experiencing homelessness with a sign on it that reads "services not sweeps," Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in downtown Seattle, across the street from City Hall. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_92441 FILE - Frank, who is experiencing homelessness, sits in his tent in Portland, Ore., next to the Willamette River on June 5, 2021. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_82099 Mark Bannister plays with his dog, Amelia, where he lives in a camp for people experiencing homelessness along the American River Parkway in Sacramento, Calif., on Feb. 24, 2022. Bannister said many people lacking housing do not want to go to shelters in Sacramento because pets are not allowed. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York, Seattle and other cities are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_89036 FILE - New York Mayor Eric Adams rides the subway to City Hall on his first day in office in New York, Jan. 1, 2022. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago. In New York, Adams is making a push to try to remove people experiencing homelessness from the city's sprawling subway system with a plan to start barring people from sleeping on trains or riding the same lines all night.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_49477 FILE - Los Angeles City Councilman and candidate for Mayor Joe Buscaino speaks during a news conferee as advocates for people experiencing homelessness hold signs behind him Aug. 16, 2021, in Los Angeles. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York, Seattle and other cities are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago. Buscaino proposes a ballot measure that would prohibit people from sleeping outdoors in public spaces if they have turned down offers of shelter.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_67327 FILE - Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser, center-right, walks with Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee III, center-left, before a news conference on Feb. 28, 2022, in Washington. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York, Seattle and other cities are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago. In the summer of 2021, Bowser launched a pilot program to permanently clear several homeless encampments.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_05191 A man who said he has been homeless for around two years moves his belongings as City of Seattle workers remove tents, trash, and personal belongings from a stretch of sidewalk across from City Hall that had been used by people experiencing homelessness, on March 9, 2022, in Seattle. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_75703 FILE - A person cycles past tents used by people experiencing homelessness set up along a pathway in Portland, Ore., on Sept. 19, 2017. For years, liberal cities in the U.S have tolerated people living in tents in parks and public spaces, but increasingly leaders in places like Portland, Oregon, New York and Seattle are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures that would've been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_77290 Workers carry a tent used by people experiencing homelessness to a garbage truck, Friday, March 11, 2022, during the clearing and removal of several tents at an encampment in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle. Increasingly in liberal cities across the country — where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated — leaders are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to address homelessness that would have been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_09757 An official notice of the clearing of an encampment of tents used by people experiencing homelessness is posted Friday, March 11, 2022, in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle. Increasingly in liberal cities across the country — where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated — leaders are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to address homelessness that would have been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_80653 A package delivery person walks near tents set up on a sidewalk in a retail area of downtown Seattle, Friday, March 11, 2022, near where the removal of several tents at an encampment in Westlake Park by city workers was taking place. Increasingly in liberal cities across the country — where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated — leaders are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to address homelessness that would have been unheard of a few years ago.
Homeless_Camps_Liberal_Crackdown_01041 Workers walk past a person sleeping under a blanket as they begin to remove tents used by people experiencing homelessness, Friday, March 11, 2022, during the clearing of an encampment in Westlake Park in downtown Seattle. Increasingly in liberal cities across the country — where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated — leaders are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to address homelessness that would have been unheard of a few years ago.
(1/23)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Makeshift shelters abut busy roadways, tent cities line sidewalks, tarps cover broken-down cars, and sleeping bags are tucked in storefront doorways. The reality of the homelessness crisis in Oregon’s largest city can’t be denied.

“I would be an idiot to sit here and tell you that things are better today than they were five years ago with regard to homelessness,” Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said recently. “People in this city aren’t stupid. They can open their eyes.”

As COVID-19 took root in the U.S., people on the street were largely left on their own — with many cities halting sweeps of homeless camps following guidance from federal health officials. The lack of remediation led to a situation that has spiraled out of control in many places, with frustrated residents calling for action as extreme forms of poverty play out on city streets.

Wheeler has now used emergency powers to ban camping along certain roadways and says homelessness is the “most important issue facing our community, bar none.”

Increasingly in liberal cities across the country — where people living in tents in public spaces have long been tolerated — leaders are removing encampments and pushing other strict measures to address homelessness that would have been unheard of a few years ago.

In Seattle, new Mayor Bruce Harrell ran on a platform that called for action on encampments, focusing on highly visible tent cities in his first few months in office. Across from City Hall, two blocks worth of tents and belongings were removed Wednesday. The clearing marked the end of a two and a half week standoff between the mayor and activists who occupied the camp, working in shifts to keep homeless people from being moved.

In Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser launched a pilot program over the summer to permanently clear several homeless camps. In December, the initiative faced a critical test as lawmakers voted on a bill that would ban clearings until April. It failed 5-7.

In California, home to more than 160,000 homeless people, cities are reshaping how they address the crisis. The Los Angeles City Council used new laws to ban camping in 54 locations. LA Mayoral candidate Joe Buscaino has introduced plans for a ballot measure that would prohibit people from sleeping outdoors in public spaces if they have turned down offers of shelter.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed declared a state of emergency in December in the crime-heavy Tenderloin neighborhood, which has been ground zero for drug dealing, overdose deaths and homelessness. She said it’s time to get aggressive and “less tolerant of all the bull—- that has destroyed our city.”

In Sacramento voters may decide on multiple proposed homeless-related ballot measures in November — including prohibiting people from storing “hazardous waste,” such as needles and feces, on public and private property, and requiring the city to create thousands of shelter beds. City officials in the area are feeling increasing pressure to break liberal conventions, including from an conservation group that is demanding that 750 people camping along a 23-mile (37-kilometer) natural corridor of the American River Parkway be removed from the area.

Advocates for the homeless have denounced aggressive measures, saying the problem is being treated as a blight or a chance for cheap political gains, instead of a humanitarian crisis.

Donald H. Whitehead Jr., executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, said at least 65 U.S. cities are criminalizing or sweeping encampments. “Everywhere that there is a high population of homeless people, we started to see this as their response.”

Portland’s homeless crisis has grown increasingly visible in recent years. During the area’s 2019 point-in-time count — a yearly census of sorts — an estimated 4,015 people were experiencing homelessness, with half of them “unsheltered” or sleeping outside. Advocates say the numbers have likely significantly increased.

Last month Wheeler used his emergency powers to ban camping on the sides of “high-crash” roadways — which encompass about 8% of the total area of the city. The decision followed a report showing 19 of 27 pedestrians killed by cars in Portland last year were homeless. People in at least 10 encampments were given 72 hours to leave.

“It’s been made very clear people are dying,” Wheeler said. “So I approach this from a sense of urgency.”

Wheeler’s top adviser — Sam Adams, a former Portland mayor — has also outlined a controversial plan that would force up to 3,000 homeless people into massive temporary shelters staffed by Oregon National Guard members. Advocates say the move, which marks a major shift in tone and policy, would ultimately criminalize homelessness.

“I understand my suggestions are big ideas,” Adams wrote. “Our work so far, mine included, has … failed to produce the sought-after results.”

Oregon’s Democratic governor rejected the idea. But Adams says if liberal cities don’t take drastic action, ballot measures that crack down on homelessness may emerge instead.

That’s what happened in left-leaning Austin, Texas. Last year voters there reinstated a ban that penalizes those who camp downtown and near the University of Texas, in addition to making it a crime to ask for money in certain areas and times.

People who work with the homeless urge mayors to find long-term solutions — such as permanent housing and addressing root causes like addiction and affordability — instead of temporary ones they say will further traumatize and villainize a vulnerable population.

The pandemic has added complications, with homeless-related complaints skyrocketing in places like Portland, where the number of campsites removed each week plummeted from 50 to five after COVID-19 hit.

The situation has affected businesses and events, with employers routinely asking officials to do more. Some are looking to move, while others already have — notably Oregon’s largest annual golf tournament, the LPGA Tour’s Portland Classic, relocated from Portland last year due to safety concerns related to a nearby homeless encampment.

James Darwin “Dar” Crammond, director at the Oregon Water Science Center building downtown, told the City Council about his experience working in an area populated with encampments.

Crammond said four years ago the biggest security concerns were vandalism and occasional car break-ins. Now employees often are confronted by “unhinged” people and forced to sidestep discarded needles, he said.

Despite spending $300,000 on security and implementing a buddy system for workers to safely be outdoors, the division of the U.S. Geological Survey is looking to move.

“I don’t blame the campers. There are a few other options for housing. There’s a plague of meth and opiates and a world that offers them no hope and little assistance,” Crammond said. “In my view, where the blame squarely lies is with the City of Portland.”

In New York City, where a homeless man is accused of pushing a woman to her death in front of a subway in January, Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to start barring people from sleeping on trains or riding the same lines all night.

Adams has likened homelessness to a “cancerous sore,” lending to what advocates describe as a negative and inaccurate narrative that villainizes the population.

“Talk to someone on the street and literally just hear a little bit about their stories — I mean, honestly, homelessness can happen to any one of us,” said Laura Recko, associate director of external communications for Central City Concern in Portland.

And some question whether the tougher approach is legal — citing the 2018 federal court decision known as Martin v. City of Boise, Idaho, that said cities cannot make it illegal for people to sleep or rest outside without providing sufficient indoor alternatives.

Whitehead, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, thought the landmark ruling would force elected officials to start developing long-term fixes and creating enough shelter beds for emergency needs. Instead, some areas are ignoring the decision or finding ways around it, he said.

“If cities become as creative about solutions as they are about criminalization, then we could end homelessness tomorrow,” he said.

___

Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

More from WTOP

Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up