The Effects of Unsanctioned Camping on Portland’s Economic Recovery

On February 16, the Portland Business Alliance released its annual State of the Economy report. The overall sentiment of Portland’s economic state is grim, due to a worsening affordability crisis and a poor reputation.

One of the biggest areas of impact is the 73% decrease in foot traffic downtown. Contributing factors to this decline are the lack of office workers in the downtown area due to the pandemic, crime, and the increasing number of homeless citizens camping in the area.

Currently, there is a 25% vacancy rate in offices downtown, but many developers say their office tenants are bringing their employees back to the office by the end of March. However, a hybrid model is most likely going to be the ongoing trend moving forward.

That means that in order to revitalize the downtown economy, a bigger push to bring visitors – shoppers, diners, museum-goers, etc. – will be necessary. However, major concerns about public safety and unsanctioned camping need to be addressed. The overwhelming majority of Portland residents want the city to do something about the campsites, which also requires getting homeless people the help that they need.

City Commissioner Mingus Mapps said that “the foundation of recovery is increasing the number of public safety officers as quickly as possible, investing in transitional shelter beds with behavioral health resources, enforce current camping ordinances, and continuing to increase trash pickup resources.”

The city has tried a variety of tactics to address the homeless crisis, and in November, Portland and Multnomah County leaders said that they planned to spend more than $38 million on homelessness services, including shelter beds and cleanup services.

One idea, proposed by former mayor and now senior adviser to Ted Wheeler, Sam Adams, suggests creating up to three massive, temporary homeless shelters, which would be staffed by unarmed Oregon National Guard members and graduate students in social work programs at Portland State University.

The concept is a stop-gap measure that would transition up to 3,000 people to giant group shelters for approximately 3 years, until revenue from a recently approved homeless services tax flows into local coffers.

This bold plan has come up against significant opposition, with homeless advocates saying this plan would criminalize and further traumatize the city’s homeless population. 

The common agreement among policy-makers and citizens alike seems to be that the city needs to address the safety issues caused by unsanctioned camping, and that it is a critical component to revitalizing the downtown area and improving the city’s economy. Yet, as has been the case in the past, opposing parties are once again at an impasse on the best way to do so.

What are your ideas about how to address public safety concerns about unsanctioned camping? Share below!


  1. Mike Ninkovich February 28, 2022 4:56 pm 

    There has been some element of homelessness ever since we moved here in 1987. Even at that time there were more visible homeless, and there seemed to be a greater pubic tolerance of them, and perhaps sympathy for them, than in any other previous locale where we had resided, most of them larger and more populous than Portland.

    You may recall at that time that the public behavior of the homeless more resembled the stereotype of the down-and-out alcoholic–sleeping in doorways with no permanent settlement, panhandling, perhaps pushing a shopping cart, etc.

    Let me ask: when was the last time you were approached by a homeless pan-handler? For myself, never within the last 5-6 years, at least. I think that this is perhaps best explained by two factors: a) available public services are plentiful enough to make pan-handling a waste of time; and b) property crime as a periodic income source has increased dramatically. Between social assistance and petty crime, there’s no longer a need to panhandle.

    I think between the two, this may have changed the underlying nature of the current homeless populations, who homestead –like in the 1870s–on public, and sometimes private, property, and form semi-permanent settlements resembling Irish Traveler encampments, or Brazilian favelas.

    I suggest that the previous public perception of the homeless as simple, stereotypical alcoholic transients, much like 1930s hobos, is profoundly inaccurate. This is a much more aggressive and socially cohesive subgroup more resembling post-apocalyptic survivors than simple habitual ne’er-do-wells. They are without employment during a period of time when employers are calling out publicly for employees, so it’s not simply a question of lack of employment opportunities. It’s something else. You are free to speculate what this might be.

    Given all this, I do not believe that public solutions based on viewing the homeless as unfortunates who want to work, but cannot, and hence must live in tents, address the problem, at all. The current homeless are minor lawbreakers who are neither prosecuted or admonished, but instead offered sympathy ad left to behave without censure in any fashion they decide on: there are no public expectancies placed upon them. Until they feel that they are accountable to the public for minimal standards of behavior, the problem will only increase.