Michael Totten joins Brian Anderson to discuss the issue of homelessness in his hometown of Portland, Oregon.

Portland is often called the “City of Bridges” for the many structures that cross the city’s two rivers. Underneath many of those bridges are homeless encampments complete with tents, plastic tarps, shopping carts—and people.

Oregon’s Supreme Court has blocked efforts to regulate homelessness in Portland, leading the city’s political leaders and nonprofits to explore new options as the situation has worsened.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: The Pacific Northwest has long been a magnet for street people, and nowhere is that truer than in Portland, Oregon.  But today the city is experimenting with unusual reforms to ease its problem.  Joining me today to discuss what is going on in the city is Portland native Michael Totten.  He is a contributing editor to City Journal and author of six books,including Tower of the Sun and Where the West Ends.  Michael’s latest City Journal article, “Portland’s Homeless Challenge,” which is available on our website and in our Winter 2016 issue will be the starting point of today’s discussion.  Welcome, Michael.

Michael Totten: Thanks, Brian.

Brian Anderson: How bad is Portland’s homelessness problem and what’s behind it?

Michael Totten: It’s pretty bad.  Right now it actually looks worse than it is, but it’s bad in a way.  We have in – Portland’s got four, there’s four counties in the metro area, Multnomah County is the biggest one.  It is the one that includes most – all of the City Center and most of the city proper.  About 600,000 people in Multnomah County and almost 2,000 of them are homeless.  And we see in and around the downtown area there are homeless camps under bridges that have got – I don’t remember how many bridges we have in the city, we have a lot, we have almost twenty – and there are homeless camps underneath most of them.  And if you go downtown early in the morning before the workday starts, like 6:00 in the morning, you’ll see people sleeping in doorways throughout the City Center.  They are gone by 8:00 in the morning but they’re there all night, and Portland is not a third-world city by any means.  It is a prosperous, high-tech, Pacific Rim city, but it has a little bit of a third-world about it sometimes.

Brian Anderson: And how big a problem is this perceived to be by the city’s leaders?

Michael Totten: It’s perceived to be a major problem and actually our mayor just declared a housing emergency about two months ago because of this problem.  And it’s actually, it looks worse as of two months ago because there’s a temporary – they are temporarily not enforcing the ban on having tents erected during the day, so for the last two months if you drive around downtown you see actually homeless camps with the kind of tents that you would go camping in the mountains, they are all over the place.  And normally the police force them to take these tents down during the day and I’m not sure why that law is no longer being enforced, but as of two months ago it’s no longer being enforced.  And that was the mayor’s unilateral decision.  He says it is temporary and it most certainly is, because he is getting an extraordinary amount of grief over this because…

Brian Anderson: From who?

Michael Totten: …all of a sudden it looks like the homeless problem is five times worse than it was, even though it’s the same.  It just suddenly looks absolutely appalling, even compared to before.

Brian Anderson: So this hurts the city’s tourism industry.  There’s a perception, I guess, of things getting a little out of control.

Michael Totten: Yeah, I mean we don’t have a huge tourism industry, it’s not like San Francisco, but we do have one.  And everybody notices it.  I mean I get friends who come visit me from other parts of the country and every single one of them asks me what on Earth is going on with homeless people, and it’s been like that for years.

Brian Anderson: Well one reason San Francisco has got such an extensive homeless population is that there are very generous benefits in place that some people say are attracting street people to San Francisco…

Michael Totten: Yes, I believe that’s true…

Brian Anderson: …and is…

Michael Totten: …and we have a similar sort of thing.

Brian Anderson: …is that true in Portland as well?

Michael Totten: Yes, but they are not getting any benefits from the government.  They are getting it from nonprofit social service agencies.  But what they do get here from the government that they don’t get in most places in the United States is an extremely lenient law enforcement attitude.  And partly that’s because of the Supreme Court.  The state’s Supreme Court.  The city council, Portland City Council, and even the state of Oregon have tried repeatedly to pass laws regulating homelessness.  And the Supreme Court repeatedly throws the laws out and makes it almost impossible for the government to move homeless people along.  I mean right now, as of two months ago, our mayor is temporarily not even bothering to try.  But he has been trying previously and will again, surely.  So the problem is more visible.  It makes it look worse than it really is and it also makes life just a little bit easier for homeless people because they’re not constantly being rousted by the police.

Brian Anderson: A significant portion of this homeless population, I imagine, are people suffering from various forms of mental illness.

Michael Totten: Yeah, about 50% have mental health problems, and 75% have substance abuse problems.  What 100% of them have in common is they have either a poor or nonexistent social support structure.  They either don’t have any friends, or they don’t have any family, or oftentimes they’ve burned their bridges with their friends and their family.  They couch-surfed for too long or you know, they stole from their friends and family in order to feed the drug habit, and their friends and family just said enough.  We’re not going to put up with this anymore.

Brian Anderson: Several people that you interview in the article cite the 1960s-era deinstitutionalization of the mental hospitals as a major cause of the rise in street homelessness, not just in Portland but across the nation.  What was the reasoning behind that movement for our listeners?

Michael Totten: Well, there were three separate things going on behind that movement.  And this is, for listeners more mature, this is closing the state psychiatric hospitals.  It started in the 60s and it went through the 80s.  So there were three ideas that came together more or less simultaneously.  One was on the political Left, it was related to the civil rights movement, and they had a genuine case to make against the state psychiatric hospital system because these hospitals were you know, this is back when we called them insane asylums, and they were really pretty awful places.  And a lot of people didn’t really need to be there.  They did not need to be locked up against their will indefinitely and a lot of them weren’t getting better, and so there was this notion that they should be basically freed from the system.  And what was also going on, on the political Right, was this movement to cut state government costs, and there was a third thing that had nothing to do with politics at all, which was the rise of psychiatric medication to help people manage these problems.  So all three of these things came together at the same time and the hospitals were shut down.  We actually now, in the United States, have fewer psychiatric beds per capita than we had in 1850.  And you can look at deinstitutionalization and say it was a success in some ways, and in some ways it was.  Because a lot of people who were basically locked up in a hospital prison aren’t anymore, and they are doing okay, they are doing better, and others aren’t doing better and they are sleeping on the street because they cannot take care of themselves and there’s really nowhere for them to go.  And it’s hard to say how much of an effect that had numerically.  Did it double the homeless population?  Nobody is really sure.  It is really hard to say.  Because about half of our homeless are mentally ill, but it’s not obvious how many of them would be locked up in some kind of institution if we still had it.  It’s not obvious.

Brian Anderson: Right.

Michael Totten: But it definitely made the problem much worse.  And I didn’t grow up in Portland.  I grew up 45 minutes south of here, but I’ve been familiar with the city my whole life and I’ve lived here for 20 years, and it’s definitely worse than it used to be.

Brian Anderson: One of the things you do in the article is describe the work of various nonprofit homeless centers in the city.  Could you describe for the listeners what was most striking about these centers?

Michael Totten: Yeah, there were two things that were most striking.  So we’ve got various organizations helping the homeless in different ways.  All of them provide food for the homeless and one of the things that really struck me was that there is an unlimited amount of free food for homeless people in this city.  None of them are going hungry, ever.  None of them are eating out of garbage cans, ever.  And none of them need money from strangers to pay for food.  Which doesn’t mean that they don’t.  If they panhandle money for food, it doesn’t mean that they don’t use that money for food if they want to go into a restaurant, or a grocery store of their choice, but there is an unlimited amount of free food options for them, three meals a day, 365 days a year.

Brian Anderson: Provided by these nonprofits.

Michael Totten: Provided by nonprofits, yes.  What they don’t get from the nonprofits, because they just don’t have the ability to provide enough help for everybody, is a place to spend the night off the street.  There are a couple hundred beds that are awarded by a lottery each night.  And when the weather is bad, if it is below freezing – it doesn’t happen all that often here, but it does sometimes – they will temporarily, a lot of these places will temporarily increase the number of beds.  They will put cots in the lobby and let people spend the night in there so they don’t freeze to death on the sidewalk.  And here’s the other thing that was really striking.  One of these organizations, the Union Gospel Mission, it’s been around for oh, off the top of my head I don’t remember, roughly a hundred years or so I think, it’s part of this movement in the United States and Canada a hundred years ago to help homeless people.  And a few decades ago they changed their mission.  They were no longer going to give homeless people a place to spend the night and give them food.  What they wanted you to do instead was treat the root cause of homelessness in most cases, which is drug and alcohol addiction.  So they have this building downtown.  It’s about eight stories.  And it’s sort of like a college dorm in there.  They’ve got these rooms where homeless people can live.  And they can live there for two years if they are willing to go through their drug and alcohol treatment plan, which also includes work therapy.  So that by the time they get – first they detox, they get clean and sober, they learn better living habits and then they learn some job skills, and they help them get work.  And it works fairly well for people who are willing to work the program.  And I was given a tour of the place and it was really quite nice.  It was much nicer than my college dorm, certainly better than sleeping under a bridge.  And I asked how long the waiting list is to get in there.  And there is no waiting list.  They always have open space, because a lot of homeless people do not want to get clean and sober.  They want to live inside for free, the way they’ve been living outside.  And that just absolutely amazed me, that somebody would rather sleep under the bridge in the cold of winter than get clean and sober.  And what do you do with these people?  I mean if they don’t want to get better they’re not going to get better.  And we can’t make them.  I mean the only thing we could do to make them…

Brian Anderson: Right.

Michael Totten: …would be to arrest them.  And we’re not going to do that, so it’s a very difficult problem.

Brian Anderson: One of the places you visit is, to my mind, unique to Portland.  I’ve never heard of anything like this anywhere else, and it’s this space called Dignity Village.  I wonder if you could describe a little bit about your visit there, what it is, and whether what it’s offering is a kind of model that could be replicated in other cities.

Michael Totten: Yeah, Dignity Village is really a very interesting place.  It has been with us, in the city, for 15 years now.  And well I’ll tell you the story how it started.  There was a group of homeless people that banded together, as they often do, and they pushed their shopping carts together and they created a little city for themselves underneath one of the bridges.  And the city government rousted them from that spot and they moved to another spot.  The city was playing whack-a-mole with them for awhile.  And then they moved underneath one of the bridges across the river in the city that is owned by the state rather than the city.  And so the city government couldn’t roust them from that spot, but the city government didn’t want them there because it’s right near downtown and homeless camps are quite an unsightly place.  So the city came up with this interesting idea.  They are going to give them basically a license to setup a homeless camp, but on a city-owned lot which is very far away from the City Center.  It’s out across from the airport, between the international airport and a state-run prison.  The city has owned this empty lot and nobody was using it for any purpose.  A fairly large place, not the size of a city block, but bigger, down in an industrialist area.  So they said okay, you guys can go out here, and just move your homeless camp there, and we won’t bother you anymore.  We won’t roust you, we won’t make you move from that spot.  You can just be there and stay there indefinitely.  So they did.  They went out there and they were you know, it looked like a refugee camp initially.  But because they were not going to get rousted, they could stay there as long as they wanted.  They actually built a city for themselves on this place.  They recycled bottles and cans and got some money scrounged together.  They bought recycled materials and they actually built houses for themselves.

Brian Anderson: Tiny houses.

Michael Totten: And – sorry, go ahead.

Brian Anderson: Very small houses, tiny homes.

Michael Totten: Yeah, they are very small houses.  They are like the size of one room in a regular house.  And they don’t have kitchens or bathrooms.  They are just basic structures, but they look better than I expected them to.  It took awhile for Dignity Village to build up to this point, it took a couple of years.  And I had seen pictures in the news of Dignity Village where it was just a bunch of you know, shopping carts, and tents, and plastic tarps back when it first started.  And I was amazed when I went out there what it looks like now.  It doesn’t look nice exactly but it certainly doesn’t look third world.  It does not look like a slum at all.  I mean some of these houses, they are actually very cute.  They painted them bright colors and they have nice ornamentation, nice windows, and they’re not…

Brian Anderson: Who provides the…

Michael Totten: …they’re not boxes.  They have porches.  They are actually pretty nice places, and these people…

Brian Anderson: But what about things like water, and electricity, and security, for that matter?

Michael Totten: They don’t have electricity and they don’t have – they don’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, but they have a community kitchen that has electricity.  And they have a community, like a community house that has electricity, and they’ve got couches and a big-screen TV and a library in there.  A fairly nice place, really.  And they have their own government with an elected CEO.  They call him a CEO.  And they have to pay, off the top of my head, I don’t remember what it is, I think it’s $35 a month, space rent to the community government.  They have rules and structure.  Nobody is allowed to use drugs or alcohol.  If they do, they are kicked out.  And they have some volunteers come – some of them do have mental health problems, so they have volunteer psychologists who come once a week to help these people out so that they can manage whatever it is that they need to manage.  And some of them work, they work very part-time doing basic jobs, but it doesn’t hardly cost anything to live there.  But here’s the thing about it – it is not meant to be permanent.  People cycle in and out.  They start on the street, they move up to Dignity Village, they get themselves sorted out, and then they get a real job and they move into an apartment.

Brian Anderson: So it’s transitional housing.

Michael Totten: It’s transitional – technically it is transitional housing, yes.  They are not actually homeless, because they have a home, sort of, and it’s not intended to be permanent.  And so none of the people who are living there now are the original people who created it.

Brian Anderson: It’s tremendously interesting, and the city has really allowed this to happen.

Michael Totten: Yeah.

Brian Anderson: I guess you would need that kind of space which nobody is using at a particular moment in time…

Michael Totten: Uh-huh.

Brian Anderson: …to replicate that experiment in other locations, but…

Michael Totten: And there is talk about expanding this model.  It’s controversial.  A lot of people don’t like the idea because they don’t want it anywhere near them.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, well I can understand but still, it’s…

Michael Totten: Yeah, I do too, but it works fairly well.  It works as well as the Union Gospel Mission that has the drug and alcohol treatment plan.  But it just doesn’t cost anybody any money.  They found a city-owned lot.  There is no taxpayer money goes…

Brian Anderson: Right.

Michael Totten: …to support this at all.

Brian Anderson: Final question, Michael.  Normally, and certainly you’ve done this for us, your travel journalism takes you to the Middle East and far-flung countries often torn by conflict.  What was it like reporting on your own backyard for this story?

Michael Totten: Well it was weird.  I felt like I was – because I was writing about one of the most – the people who are, who have more problems than really anybody else here.  I felt like I was back in the rough part of the world in some way.

Brian Anderson: Yeah.

Michael Totten: And so it was strange because you know, I don’t spend that much time thinking about these problems when I’m just living my life here, and going off to places like Baghdad that are just horrendously screwed up, and I come back to Oregon and you know, I feel like I’m in the greatest place on the face of the Earth.  And then I go and I cover something, I spent a month researching something like this and you know, it just reminds me that hey, even the greatest places on the face of the Earth have some pretty serious problems.

Brian Anderson: Thanks again, Michael, for joining us.  Michael Totten has a new City Journal article.  It is titled “Portland’s Homeless Challenge.”  It is in our Winter issue and it’s available on our website.  You can tweet your comments and questions about today’s discussion to @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks.  Thanks a lot, Michael.

Michael Totten: Thanks, Brian.

Photo by andipantz / iStock

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