Portland, Oregon is no stranger to the interconnected issues of poverty, homelessness, and drug addiction. An annual government count found that roughly 6,000 Multnomah County residents are currently experiencing homelessness.

The reason people end up unhoused is not always straightforward, as is why they may be experiencing poverty or addiction. Solving these problems requires multi-pronged solutions that approach them from both social and economic standpoints. It is important to note that these issues often overlap, and investing in solutions that approach them in a humane and informed way will help people struggling with housing insecurity and/or addiction.

Portland has recently taken to criminalizing these issues rather than proven solutions. Multiple bills have been introduced in recent months, ranging from a daytime camping ban to criminalizing fentanyl . These bills (some of which are not in effect) exemplify a dangerous trend in how governments can choose to criminalize poverty and addiction rather than address them at the root, with approaches that are proven to work.

The Camping Ban

The camping ban aims to coerce unhoused people into mass camps, essentially “disappearing” the problem of homelessness. By making it invisible to the public, we are less likely to be confronted by the harsh realities of the economic and social state of Portland. Furthermore, camps of this nature, though not yet operational, are known to be unsafe. Many unhoused or previously unhoused residents have spoken out about the potential safety hazards and the harm that these camps could cause.

Shelters also have a history of being unsafe. In a Portland Tribune article, one resident recalled how a friend was drugged at a shelter, and because of this experience she does not feel safe going to one. Another resident brought up similar concerns about the risk of theft and getting bedbugs. These are genuine concerns, and simply telling people to go to shelters undermines their autonomy. This is not to say that shelters overall are bad, or that people dont benefit from utilizing shelters; shelters are a safe and valuable resource for many. Rather, unhoused people, like everyone else, should be able to make choices about where they want to be while considering their varying desires and needs.

The camping ban, which was initially supposed to be enforced starting November 13th, has been temporarily blocked by a preliminary injunction requested by Oregon Law Center attorneys. A Multnomah County Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of the injunction until a lawsuit against the camping ban is resolved.

Coercing unhoused people into unsafe conditions is an inhumane approach to this problem

$27 million has been allocated to the mass camps, contracting California-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy to build and run the camps, which has its own share of controversy.

In Oregon, it typically costs $20,000 annually to get someone unsheltered into housing; it can cost up to $40,000 a year to host a person in a shelter. The problem isn’t even a shortage of housing. The city typically has anywhere between 12,000 and 15,000 empty apartment units at any given time, more than enough to house our housing-insecure population. Rather, the problem is the shortage of affordable housing. Yet Portland had over 100 million dollars allocated to address homelessness that had been left unspent until September of this year, prompting what some called a “cobbled together” funding plan. It is not that the city is lacking the resources to remedy the issues at hand, but rather that they are not investing the money into permanent solutions such as affordable housing. Though the money has now all been spent, Commissioner Sharon Meieran criticized the plan, saying that though it would fund various programs to help combat homelessness, it is more focused on short-term solutions and not systemic change.

A New York Times piece highlighted connections between escalating drug use, especially fentanyl, and homelessness. The article implies that drug use is a leading cause of homelessness. Other states in the U.S., however, demonstrate that is not the case. Take West Virginia, for example: it has one of the highest overdose rates in the country while simultaneously having one of the lowest rates of homelessness. Why? Housing in West Virginia is affordable, whether or not residents are struggling with addiction.

What the article, and many proponents of the mass camps, fail to recognize is that the number one way to ensure unhoused people find stable housing is to increase the availability of affordable housing. Portland will not solve its housing crisis if costly apartments remain empty, all the while housing-insecure people are struggling day-by-day outside. The solution is for the city to invest the money it is spending criminalizing poverty and homelessness into services that will actually help people.

If the city continues to spend excess money on solutions that don’t solve the problem at its core, housing insecurity will continue to affect Portland residents. Shelters provide a temporary solution for some and remain a vital service in a city experiencing this kind of policy, but it is not the be-all-end-all solution to permanently housing the unhoused.

Of course, ensuring permanent housing is easier said than done, but many organizations in Portland, including organizations that Our Streets provides meals for every day of the week, have already started this work and provide beneficial models for how it might be done. Do Good Multnomah, a Portland-based organization that helps unhoused veterans, has created community-based transitional housing. The program provides residents with case workers and staff to help each individual in their transition to finding permanent housing. Similarly, organization All Good NW operates three safe rest villages, with two being specifically for BIPOC and queer people. These models engage each person on an individual level, which is vital when thinking about the problem of homelessness; as noted, everyone who experiences housing insecurity is experiencing a slightly different set of circumstances. The city should be investing in programs like this instead of mass camps, where people will likely rarely find individualized or identity-based support.

However, shelters are constantly facing capacity issues, rendering them unable to accommodate all who need to utilize the resources that they provide.

The millions that Portland is spending on mass camps, a temporary solution, would be much better spent actually housing people.

The Prison Industrial Complex

This mass encampment approach echoes how the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) has expanded over previous decades.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a geographer, wrote about this phenomenon in her 1999 essay entitled “Globalisation and US prison growth.” She wrote that “the expansion of prison constitutes a geographical solution to socio-economic problems, politically organised by the state.” This is the troubling truth about criminalization. It is not a solution to a problem at all. Instead, it is a solution to the optics of the problem.

Simply moving people who are unhoused to another geographical location, whether it be a mass camp or jail time, as the camping ban threatens, does not improve the material conditions of those people. It does not give them stable housing, or social services. It does not give them counseling or attempt to understand their realities in any meaningful way. It simply serves to move them out of view, funneling the money and resources that could be used to house them into carceral systems. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says this ban will do more to criminalize poverty than anything else. When experiencing poverty becomes a crime, getting out of it becomes even more difficult.

Criminalization puts money and resources towards enforcing legislation and expanding the power of the police and the state. The government therefore funnels money and resources into enforcing laws that do not actually help people experiencing housing insecurity, poverty, or addiction.

Why is Portland criminalizing instead of trying to support solutions that aid people struggling with addiction?

It is the same instance with criminalizing substance use, whether that be fentanyl or public drug use. If we learned anything from the War on Drugs, or even the Prohibition Era, it is that criminalizing substance use does not actually decrease it. Rather, it is a tool to expand incarceration and state control. People were not deterred from using substances nor were they inspired to quit; instead, they went to jail.

The City of Portland continues to assume that making drug use illegal will deter people from using them, despite evidence that alternative solutions are much more effective in helping people struggling with addiction. Genuine concern for the issue requires investing in solutions that have been proven to help. According to Axios, federal data suggests only slightly more than one in 10 people with opioid use disorder receive medication for it. This supports the fear that criminalizing fentanyl will only further ostracize and hurt people struggling with addiction.

Oregon has previously taken steps to decriminalize drug use. Measure 110 passed in 2020, which decriminalized drug possession in the state. It remains the first state in the U.S. to do so. The previously referenced New York Times article reported that the while the measure both decriminalized drugs and aimed to increase funding for addiction treatment, the rollout of that funding has been slow.

While it is true that fatal overdoses in Oregon have increased since Measure 110 passed, to say that it is responsible for increased drug use and deaths when there is a national opioid epidemic impacting millions of Americans is a false equivalency. A CDC-funded study shows that the increase in drug overdose deaths does not correlate with the measure, as overdoses have increased nationwide, and more significantly in states with tighter restrictions. Oregon currently ranks as the 34th state in number of fatal overdose rates, despite it being the first state to decriminalize drug possession. Even with this evidence, some politicians and business leaders are attempting to bring a partial repeal of Measure 110 to state ballots, arguing that the measure has made things worse in Oregon.

If this study has made anything clear, it is that addiction is still a serious and fatal issue. But it equally shows that criminalizing drugs is not the way to rectify those issues. Decriminalization simply means that people will not be faced with harsh punishments for struggling with addiction—real solutions, such as better addiction treatment, are also imperative to addressing these issues.

Solutions that put people first are far safer than criminalization of drug or fentanyl use. The National Institutes of Health, a research agency under the U.S. Department of Health & Services, says that rather than treating addiction as a criminal offense, it should be treated as a disease that is a public health issue. Despite this, addiction is often viewed as a choice: either that people are choosing to start doing drugs or are choosing to stay addicted and refuse treatment. This is not the reality for many drug users, and harm reduction approaches have been proven to be more effective in helping people who are struggling with addiction. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that only 13% of people struggling with addiction receive treatment, and that number falls to 11% for people struggling with opioid addiction. Because of this, NIDA recommends investing in harm reduction tactics, which help reduce overdoses and promote safer drug use. Understanding that addiction is difficult to recover from, and that most people do not have a perfect road to recovery, makes investing in harm reduction vital. Providing free Narcan, creating needle exchanges, and opening harm reduction and detox centers are some solutions that have been proven to be safer and more effective solutions. Criminalizing people for struggling with a deadly disease is not.

Portland’s current trend of criminalization is troubling. The policies the city is currently proposing stand to move homelessness or drug use out of the public eye. Poverty, addiction, and housing insecurity are interconnected socio-economic issues that require multi-faceted solutions. All Good NW states on their website that they believe in a housing first, not housing only model: support needs to be comprehensive. Housing is only the beginning. Giving people resources to find stable housing, employment, and addiction treatment, as well as supporting them through these processes, will do much more than good than having them engage with the carceral system. If Portland really wants to solve these problems, it should look towards better, more compassionate and more comprehensive solutions.