PORTLAND, Ore. — Michelle Farris by no means anticipated to change into homeless, however right here she was, sifting by way of rubbish and towering piles of particles gathered alongside a roadway on the outskirts of Northeast Portland. Farris, 51, has spent a lot of her grownup life in Oregon, and has vivid recollections of this space alongside the lumbering Columbia River when it was pristine, a place for quiet walks.

Now for miles in each instructions, the roadside was lined with worn RVs and rusted boats doubling as shelter. And spilling out from these RVs, the trash and castoffs from this makeshift neighborhood additionally stretched for miles, making for a chaos that unnerved her.

Damaged chairs, busted-up automobile elements, empty booze bottles, dirty blankets, discarded garments, crumpled tarps. Once in a while, it was greater than she may bear, and he or she attacked the muddle round her personal RV, attempting furiously to arrange the detritus into piles.

“Have a look at all this rubbish out right here — it was once stunning nature, however now it’s all polluted,” she mentioned, as a stench of urine and burned rubber hung in the damp air. “The deer and river otters and beavers must dwell with all this rubbish.”

She paused a second, glancing in the distance at a snow-capped Mount St. Helens. A line of RVs dotted the horizon.

Portland’s homeless downside now extends nicely past the downtown core, creating a disaster of conscience for this fiercely liberal metropolis that for years has been amongst America’s most beneficiant in investing in homeless assist providers. Tents and tarps more and more crowd the sidewalks and parks of Portland’s leafy suburban neighborhoods. And the sewage and trash from unsanctioned RV encampments pollute the watersheds of the Willamette and Columbia rivers.

The RV encampments have emerged as havens of heroin and fentanyl use, a neighborhood of habit from which it’s troublesome to interrupt free, based on interviews with dozens of camp inhabitants. Even whereas reflecting on their ills, many of the squatters remarked on the stunning stage of providers obtainable for folks residing homeless in Portland, from charity meals deliveries and roving nurses to used-clothing drop-offs and moveable loos — even occasional free pump-outs for his or her RV restrooms, courtesy of the metropolis.

Big disposal containers for used syringes are strategically positioned in areas with excessive concentrations of homeless folks. Crimson port-a-potties pepper retail corridors, in addition to some tony family-oriented neighborhoods. In elements of the metropolis, activists have nailed small picket cabinets to road posts providing up sundries like socks, tampons, shampoo, and cans of tuna.

“Portland makes it very easy to be homeless,” mentioned Cindy Stockton, a home-owner in the wooded St. Johns neighborhood in north Portland who has grown alarmed by the fallout. “There’s all the time any person freely giving free tents, sleeping baggage, garments, water, sandwiches, three meals a day — it’s all right here.”

Portland, like Los Angeles, Sacramento, and far of the San Francisco Bay Space, has skilled a conspicuous rise in the quantity of folks residing in sordid sprawls of tents and RVs, whilst these communities have poured thousands and thousands of tax {dollars} — billions, collectively — into supportive providers.

Portland provides a textbook instance of the intensifying funding. In 2017, the 12 months Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat, took workplace, Portland spent roughly $27 million on homeless providers. Underneath his management, funding has skyrocketed, with Wheeler this 12 months pushing by way of a record $85 million for homeless housing and providers in the 2022-23 fiscal 12 months.

Voters in the broader area of Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties in 2020 approved a tax measure to bolster funding for homelessness. The measure, which will increase taxes for higher-income companies and households, is predicted to boost $2.5 billion by 2030.

Tents now crowd downtown retail corridors in Portland. An estimated 6,000 persons are residing homeless in the metropolitan area, a 50% surge over 2019. (Angela Hart / KHN)

However as debate roils about how greatest to spend the rising income, Portland additionally provides a sobering lesson in the arduous knot of fixing homelessness, as soon as it hits a disaster stage.

What Portland has not managed to do is repair the housing piece of the homeless equation. Town has about 1,500 shelter beds, not almost sufficient to satisfy the want. It lacks prepared entry to the variety of sponsored everlasting housing, buoyed by case managers, medical care, job placement, and habit remedy, that has confirmed profitable in cities such as Houston in shifting folks off the streets.

Nor has Portland come near replenishing the shares of reasonably priced housing misplaced as its neighborhoods have gentrified and redeveloped.

Wheeler rejects claims that Portland has attracted homeless folks to the area with its array of day-to-day providers. However he acknowledged that the metropolis doesn’t have sufficient housing, detox services, or psychological well being care choices to satisfy the want: “We’re not appropriately scaled to the measurement and scope of the downside.”

“And, , is that our fault?” he mentioned, calling for extra state and federal funding. He pointed to “a foster care system that delivers folks to the streets after they age out,” and a jail system that releases folks with out job coaching or connections to neighborhood providers.

In the meantime, the mission has grown extra daunting. The 2019 homeless depend in the Portland area, a one-night tally, discovered greater than 4,000 folks residing in shelters, autos, or on the streets. This 12 months, that quantity stands at roughly 6,000, based on the mayor’s workplace, a 50% surge that’s, nonetheless, broadly thought-about an undercount.

Making it extra humane to dwell homeless in Portland, it seems, has not moved folks in massive numbers off the streets. Nor has it saved those that have discovered housing from being changed by folks in but extra donated tents and extra battered RVs.


South of the Columbia River in an industrial part of north Portland, not removed from Delta Park’s bustling soccer and softball advanced, one other RV encampment strains a facet road that juts off the major drag. Many of the camp’s inhabitants have parked right here for years and are protecting of their turf. Group leaders maintain down the numbers — not more than 20 or so RVs. They usually implement tidiness guidelines, generally utilizing bodily power, in order not to attract undue consideration from metropolis code enforcement.

“We’ve maintained a symbiotic relationship with the companies right here,” mentioned Jake Caldwell, 38, who lives in an RV along with his girlfriend, Sarah Bennett. “We hold it clear and orderly, they usually allow us to keep.”

Sarah Bennett lives in an RV encampment close to Portland’s Delta Park, the place drug use is rampant. “When you get out right here, it’s so arduous to get out,” she says. “My legs are so swollen from taking pictures heroin into the identical place for therefore lengthy, I’m fearful I’ve a blood clot.”(Angela Hart / KHN)

Almost all these interviewed in the encampments mentioned they’ve observed a sharp improve in the quantity of folks residing out of RVs in Portland, a development enjoying out up and down the West Coast. Some of the newcomers misplaced their jobs in pandemic-related shutdowns and couldn’t sustain with lease or mortgage. Others, already residing on the edge, described being kicked off couches by household or associates as covid made cramped residing conditions harmful.

They’ve joined the ranks of the extra entrenched homeless and individuals who can not afford to dwell right here. Minimal-wage earners who grew up in the area solely to be priced out of the housing market as wealthier folks moved in. Individuals who lost their financial footing as a result of of a medical disaster. Individuals scuffling with untreated psychological sickness. Individuals recent out of jail. Road hustlers content material to outlive on the proceeds of petty crime.

And an awesome theme: Individuals left numb and addled by a drug habit. Some misplaced jobs and households whereas scuffling with drug and alcohol use and ended up on the streets; others began utilizing after touchdown on the streets.

“It’s like a hamster wheel — when you get out right here, it’s so arduous to get out,” mentioned Bennett, 30, a heroin addict. “My legs are so swollen from taking pictures heroin into the identical place for therefore lengthy, I’m fearful I’ve a blood clot.

“I really feel like I’m losing my life away.”

Most of the RVers interviewed in these north Portland encampments overtly mentioned their addictions. However they routinely cited a lack of reasonably priced housing as a key issue in their predicament, and blamed homelessness for exacerbating their psychological and bodily illnesses.

“You get extreme despair and PTSD from being out right here,” Bennett mentioned.

Nonetheless, she and others contemplate themselves fortunate to have scored an RV, which even damaged down can value a few thousand {dollars}. One camp dweller mentioned he purchased his utilizing unemployment funds after shedding his job in the pandemic. Caldwell and Bennett, who each use and deal heroin, mentioned they bought theirs with assist from drug cash. Some RVs are stolen; others had been donated or just taken over after being deserted.

The advantages, RVers mentioned, are innumerable in contrast with tent-living: Portland climate is notoriously soggy, and RVs supply extra dependable shelter. They’ve doorways that lock as a substitute of zip, so that you’re not ripped off as typically. Girls really feel much less susceptible. It’s simpler to arrange possessions.

Paul Hunter has taken to sleeping on the roof of his RV, parked alongside a stretch of NE thirty third Drive in Portland. The inside is infested with rats, he says, in addition to two rattlesnakes.(Angela Hart / KHN)

In addition they spoke of downsides. With the exception of the “excessive rollers” who can spare a few hundred for a moveable generator, most of the RVers haven’t any electrical energy. Nor hookups for the septic programs. Town comes by occasionally to pump out the waste, however extra typically it’s illegally dumped into rivers and streets. Most of the RVs are not drivable; occupants have them hauled from website to website. Bennett was amongst dozens of individuals who complained about the rats that commonly chew up by way of the undercarriages.

“Quite a bit of folks out listed here are criminals, flat-out,” mentioned James Carter, 60, who grew to become homeless after shedding his job as an automotive refinish technician early in the pandemic and now lives out of a cargo van. “Stolen vehicles get dropped on this highway always. There have been lifeless our bodies.”

Carter, too, makes use of heroin. He and others mentioned they assist their behavior by utilizing meals stamp advantages to buy palettes of bottled water, then empty the water and recycle the bottles for money. Some mentioned they steal electronics from big-box shops and resell the items. They are saying the retailers usually don’t attempt to cease them, fearful about the threat of violence to their staff.

“We name it getting nicely, since you really feel like shit till you get excessive,” mentioned Carter, describing a heroin behavior that prices him about $40 per day. “There’s a lot of individuals who need assistance out right here.”


Laurelhurst Park is a forested oasis in east Portland. Located south of the Columbia River with the mighty Willamette to the west, it spans 32 acres and options a spring-fed duck pond, working trails, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, and a playground.

However the leisure areas are sometimes plagued by particles from a homeless encampment in the park that ballooned throughout the pandemic and has confirmed troublesome to disband regardless of a sequence of legislation enforcement sweeps. Many owners in the surrounding neighborhood, a historic enclave of Craftsman and Colonial Revival-style houses, say they’ve been thrust into the position of vigilantes, leaning on the metropolis to do one thing about the mess.

They really feel Portland’s appeal ebbing, as the lives of the unhoused collide with the lives of the housed.

“This was once the most stunning, superb metropolis — now folks’s homes and vehicles are getting damaged into, and you’ll name 911, however nobody goes to return,” mentioned TJ Browning, who chairs the public security committee for the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Affiliation.

“We’re a progressive metropolis, I’m a progressive, however the worst half is I can really feel the compassion leaving,” she mentioned. “I acknowledge persons are self-medicating psychological sickness with medicine, however so many individuals like me simply don’t care anymore. We wish the felony component out, even when it means taking folks to jail.”

It’s her job to gather neighborhood complaints, and there was no scarcity as the metropolis has allowed the amorphous encampment to take root in the park and smaller offshoots to pop up on surrounding streets. Once in a while, when the neighborhood has complained sufficient, authorities sweep the camps, solely to see them take form as soon as extra.

TJ Browning helps preserve orange fencing the metropolis put in to dissuade homeless folks from pitching tents in her Laurelhurst neighborhood in Portland. “I acknowledge persons are self-medicating psychological sickness with medicine, however so many individuals like me simply don’t care anymore,” she says. “We wish the felony component out, even when it means taking folks to jail.”(Angela Hart / KHN)

One night time, a propane tank exploded, inflicting a hearth. Kids have picked up used needles. Some of the homeless campers rant at parkgoers and wade into visitors. She fields calls from neighbors involved about nighttime prowlers.

“It’s simply not secure anymore,” Browning mentioned. “It’s arduous to really feel compassion for the individual creating the downside, when the downside is a menace to you or your loved ones.”

Like many residents interviewed, Browning is a longtime Democrat who has watched in dismay as her liberal values give technique to frustration and resentment. And she or he understands the good intentions, spawned by liberal insurance policies, that introduced Portland to this tipping level.

They embrace a devoted effort to decriminalize low-level drug possession; a shift towards “hurt discount” applications that provide addicts shelter and medical care with out coercing abstinence; court rulings that make it troublesome to clear homeless encampments if the metropolis can’t supply beds to the folks displaced.

The issue shouldn’t be a lot the insurance policies, in concept, as it’s how they play out in Portland’s broader actuality. Drug customers keep out of jail, however Oregon has too few drug remedy applications and no simple technique to mandate participation. Advocates for the homeless ardently protest efforts to roust the encampments, arguing folks have nowhere else to go.

And cuts to police providers have left housed residents feeling they’re on their very own to cope with the repercussions.

In recent times, Portland has made main cuts to police funding, spurred in half by the motion to “de-fund police” and shift assets into financial improvement and social providers. In 2020, the Portland Police Bureau took a funding minimize of $26.9 million, and eradicated officer positions assigned to a gun violence discount crew, narcotics, organized crime, neighborhood security, faculties, and visitors patrol.

There are 774 sworn officers in Portland immediately, down from 934 in 2020.

“The Police Bureau is the smallest it has been in fashionable instances, with fewer sworn members than any time in anybody’s reminiscence,” mentioned Sgt. Kevin Allen, a spokesperson for the bureau.

“It’s not stunning that individuals imagine they aren’t seeing as fast a response, or as many officers on patrol — as a result of there aren’t as many. We now have to prioritize what we will do based mostly on our assets.”

With crime on the rise — property crimes are up 33% over final spring, and homicides last year eclipsed a three-decade document — Mayor Wheeler has restored some of the funding as half of a broader funding in public security. However residents say they’ll’t depend on police to answer emergency calls.

“If no person is dying,” Browning mentioned, “no police officer goes to indicate up.”

In some methods, Portland’s liberal constituency is at conflict with itself, the religious at odds with the disillusioned.

“We wish a extra holistic answer to assist folks out right here, and for this neighborhood to be livable regardless if you’re housed or unhoused,” mentioned Matchu Williams, a volunteer with the Mt. Scott-Arleta Neighborhood Affiliation.

Cindy Stockton, a home-owner in north Portland, is amongst the longtime Democrats rising disillusioned with the metropolis’s politics. “Portland makes it very easy to be homeless,” Stockton says. “There’s all the time any person freely giving free tents, sleeping baggage, garments, water, sandwiches, three meals a day — it’s all right here.”(Angela Hart / KHN)

Williams helps lead efforts to deliver in extra public restrooms, free bathe providers at a neighborhood middle, and “neighborhood care cupboards” with donated objects like toothbrushes and canned greens. “That is simply neighbors coming collectively shopping for what they’ll to place in right here, and it’s often stocked full,” he mentioned. “It’s small, however significant.”

Williams offers voice to a different core constituency in Portland who say the metropolis has a accountability to ease the burden of residing homeless, whereas additionally investing extra vitality and assets to deal with the reasonably priced housing scarcity he sees as the genesis of the downside. On a brisk spring day, strolling previous the slick espresso outlets and brew homes which have made Mt. Scott-Arleta a draw, he recounted the metropolis’s troublesome slog pushing by way of a 100-unit reasonably priced housing advanced in his neighborhood.

Portland residents are fast to approve funding for homeless providers, he famous, however extra resistant in relation to supporting websites for low-income and homeless housing.

“There’s been a lot of frustration with how sluggish issues are shifting,” Williams mentioned. “It’s essential to know how we acquired right here, but in addition how we get out of it.”

Others, like Cindy Stockton, whose north Portland neighborhood sits at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, surprise if there are classes to be gleaned from extra conservative cities. Phoenix, for instance, takes a much less accommodating strategy to encampments. Individuals residing homeless are steered to a loosely designated encampment in the metropolis middle that’s cordoned off by chain boundaries and patrolled by police. Campers are provided with meals, water, sanitary services, and medical remedy. However the association comes with the understanding that tenting usually is tolerated solely inside these boundaries.

“I’m a lifelong Democrat, however I discover myself questioning if we have to elect Republicans,” Stockton mentioned. “We’ve been Democratic-led for therefore lengthy in this state, and it’s not getting us wherever.”

Browning, in Laurelhurst, described a related transformation: “I look in the mirror, and I see a hippie — however a hippie wouldn’t be advocating for extra police. I generally can’t imagine I’m having these ideas: ‘Why don’t these folks get hauled to jail? Why can’t they get a job?’

“I ponder, what the hell occurred to me?”


Buffeted by the political crosswinds of Portland’s homeless dilemma, Mayor Wheeler is seeking to regulate course. Wheeler, who took workplace in 2017, was elected as half of a wave of progressive politicians seen as standard-bearers for a extra socially aware strategy to social ills.

That has meant a give attention to police reform, and a host of applications anchored in the idea that individuals residing homeless, addicted, or with untreated psychological sickness are victims of a damaged system. Fairly than blaming them for his or her plight, the concept is to satisfy their fast wants with sensitivity whereas working to get them providers to deal with the points that put them on the road.

In vogue is a push to create everlasting housing choices with wraparound providers that may begin earlier than somebody is secure or sober; frowned upon are the old-school emergency shelters with curfews and drug bans that many advocates denounce as warehousing.

But it surely takes time — and funding and zoning adjustments and neighborhood buy-in — to design and approve websites for the longer-term applications. Portland’s homeless inhabitants has outpaced the metropolis’s efforts.

“Fentanyl is making the rounds, and we’ve a main meth and heroin downside,” Wheeler mentioned. “There are a lot of folks residing on the edge, and an increasing number of reside in their RVs. It’s a disaster for folks residing on the streets, and they’re completely traumatized, however we additionally acknowledge that this creates a downside for the complete neighborhood — for public security and the atmosphere.”

A resident of an RV encampment close to Delta Park prepares to smoke heroin. Dependancy to heroin or fentanyl is a frequent theme in the encampments.(Angela Hart / KHN)

In the brief time period, Wheeler mentioned, Portland is attempting to deal with the public well being dangers by putting in public restrooms and hygiene stations and providing RV sewage providers. And, he has riled some liberal allies by adopting the stance that the metropolis has an obligation to filter out extra encampments and transfer folks into emergency shelters for their very own well being and security.

Wheeler’s finances for the coming 12 months, lately accepted by the metropolis council, requires 10 new shelter applications providing almost 600 beds. He desires to order 130 residences for folks residing homeless and 200 motel rooms for older homeless folks with continual circumstances, and to develop drug remedy choices. Most controversial, the metropolis would funnel $36 million over two years to assist create eight “safe-rest villages,” a combine of tiny houses and RV parking with assist providers and house for as much as 1,500 folks.

The proposal is mired in controversy, with many neighborhood teams opposed. At the identical time, Wheeler mentioned, “I’m listening to overwhelmingly from the folks in this metropolis that they don’t wish to merely criminalize homeless folks and throw them in jail as a result of they’re homeless. I don’t assume that’s a actual answer.”

Larry Bixel says his free fall into homelessness began after he acquired hooked on painkillers prescribed for a shoulder tear sustained whereas enjoying softball at Delta Park almost 20 years in the past. “I went from painkillers after the accident to habit taking up my life,” he says.(Angela Hart / KHN)

Larry Bixel, who lives in a 1987-issue Fleetwood Bounder close to Delta Park, has his doubts about the metropolis’s means to place a dent in the homeless numbers, a lot as he’d like a actual home. “I don’t acknowledge Portland anymore,” he mentioned. “There’s tents all alongside the freeway. It’s the tablets and medicines all over the place.”

A former automobile salesman, Bixel, 41, mentioned his free fall into homelessness began after he acquired hooked on painkillers prescribed for a shoulder tear sustained whereas enjoying softball at Delta Park almost 20 years in the past. He progressed from Vicodin to OxyContin to heroin, a cheaper behavior that his spouse additionally took up. Life spiraled as he wrecked his automobile and racked up felony convictions. Over time, the couple misplaced their jobs, their house, and custody of their three younger kids.

“I went from painkillers after the accident to habit taking up my life,” he mentioned.

However Bixel hasn’t given up on himself. He thinks with the proper alternatives — a job, a landlord prepared to take a probability on him — he may discover the motivation to get clear once more.

“My spouse and I, we’re checked out like scum now,” Bixel mentioned. “However truthfully, that is additionally one of the greatest issues that has occurred to me. I used to look down at homeless folks for not having a job, and if any person requested me for change, I’d say, ‘I labored arduous for this.’

“Now, if somebody asks me for a cigarette, I’ll give them two.”

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially unbiased service of the California Health Care Foundation.

Angela Hart: [email protected], @ahartreports