Homelessness in Portland’s Lents Neighborhood

Portland, Oregon has become known around the world as a hipster paradise. The music scene is thriving. You can grab a $9 vegan meal from a food cart on any corner downtown. “Ready for Hillary” signs and “Bernie for President” stickers decorate lawns and Subaru bumpers throughout the neighbourhoods. Portlandia, a popular show starring Fred Armisen, has made it clear that the city is a sanctuary for freaks and weirdos. It’s an oasis for creative folks. However, it’s not all craft beer, bike paths, and roses. In recent years, the growing population has become unsustainable. Portland has always been a majority white city, but now it is one of least racially diverse cities in America. Gentrification is rampant. Folks are getting priced out of their family homes left and right. There are extremely apparent divides from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Homelessness is an extreme problem plaguing the lower-class neighbourhoods, and city officials don’t seem to care.

In the past 15 years, the population of Portland has grown about 17% and currently sits around 620,000. As of 2013, around 436,500 of those citizens are white. There are very apparent economic and racial divide between neighbourhoods. Generally, the inner-city areas are very white while the neighbourhoods on the north and east outskirts of Portland are more diverse. For example, I grew up in Lents, a neighbourhood on the eastern edge of Portland. According to City-Data.com, Lents is 42% white, 15% black, 23% Asian, and 17% hispanic. My best friend grew up about 3 miles west of me in a neighbourhood called Eastmoreland. Her neighbours are 95% white and 3% Asian.

The city of Portland has a mayor and a council of 30 officials. Portland does not have a city manager. In Portland, elections are held in November and May. Some ballot measures and positions are district wide, while some are at-large. Ballots are mailed to all registered voters. These ballots can be dropped in one of the many ballot boxes that are scattered around town, or they can be mailed back. The mail-in ballots and lack of voter ID laws make it easy to vote in Portland. The city officials are very pro-development and are agents of gentrification. There is evidence of this mayoral campaign finance records; over 55% of Mayor Hales’ campaign contributions were from the real estate and development industry. The same is true for several other city officials, like commissioner Steve Novick.

Portland is an extremely liberal place compared to the rest of the country. A lot of Portlanders are white moderates who live comfortably and don’t really have to worry about city politics because they’re thriving in the current system. But there’s also a lot of Portlanders who are people of color fighting for representation, or folks who have to work 2 jobs to pay the ever-growing rent. Elected officials are generally upper middle class moderates. Most of them are white men who attended prestigious universities and reside in the most expensive neighbourhoods Portland has to offer. Our elected officials are not representative of many of Portland’s citizens. Nick Fish, Portland City commissioner, graduated from Harvard and lives in Goose Hollow – a neighbourhood in SW where you can pay $2000 a month for a studio apartment. Our mayor, Charlie Hales, lives in a mansion next to the Eastmoreland golf course.

Portland has grown a lot in the past few decades. Hip folks from out of state flooded out here after watching an episode of Portlandia. I won’t deny that Portland is an amazing city, but this influx of affluent white people has caused a lot of problems. There used to be thriving working class neighbourhoods and communities of people of color scattered around the city. Those areas are now in the late stages of gentrification.

Portland’s gentrification is most apparent when you take a look at homelessness in the city. It is extremely concentrated in the areas that have been the last to gentrify. Earlier in this essay, I mentioned that I grew up in the Lents neighbourhood – it’s one of the last places in Portland to maintain diversity and offer affordable housing. The homeless problem in Lents makes it very apparent that the gentrification in Portland is systematic and city officials are purposely making it worse. In the next section of this essay, I will focus on the Lents neighbourhood, the gentrification and homelessness there, and the systematic pitting of marginalized people against other marginalized groups.

First, a bit of history about the Lents neighbourhood. For a long time, Lents was its own city. It had a thriving working class, a little down town, and all the amenities necessary for a small town to thrive. The residents never had to go to Portland for anything. In 1912, Lents was annexed by the city of Portland. However, it was quite far from the rest of Portland. While that enabled it to keep its sense of community, this also meant it was neglected by the city. The neighbourhood wasn’t doing great, but continued to make ends meet until the 70’s. In 1973, the city of Portland began construction on interstate 205, right in the middle of Lents. This split the neighbourhood in half and demolished any sense of community that Lents held on to. Most of the residents couldn’t fight back – they were trying to keep food on the table after decades of neglect on the city’s behalf ⁷.

For the past few decades, Lents has been one of the only affordable neighbourhoods in Portland, as newcomers (and the rest of the city) don’t find it very desirable. Gentrification is beginning to set in, though; folks, like my parents, who have lived there for 30 or 40 years have begun receiving postcards daily from developers trying to buy their family homes. Lents has always had a homeless population, but for a long time, it was small and the housed and houseless coexisted peacefully. However, in the past five years, there has been a massive influx of homelessness in Lents. There is a lot of evidence that city officials are systematically pushing homeless populations into the lower-income, more diverse, underrepresented, and less gentrified areas like Lents in order to attract people to the nicer parts of town.

Portland’s homelessness problems started getting severe a decade or two ago when tons of people began moving to the city. City officials banned camping downtown and in parks. They began enforcing camping laws in certain parts of the city, but not in the poorer communities. When folks tried camping in rich, desireable neighbourhoods like Eastmoreland or Goose Hollow, police would immediately do sweeps on campers and move them out of the area. Residents of Lents and other ‘undesirable’ areas will complain all they can, but the camping rules aren’t enforced often in their neighbourhood. Currently, Lents houses “5% of Portland’s population, but carries the burden of 55% of the homeless population” ⁸. Due to this extreme increase in homelessness, crime rates have risen significantly and property values have plummeted.

Recently, Lents residents have been organizing grassroots efforts to get the city of Portland on their side. In the past two years, my neighbours in Lents have started the Lents Neighbourhood Association in order to plan actions and brainstorm solutions. Folks have sent letter after letter to the mayor and city commissioners begging for sweeps or longer term solutions⁸. They have started to listen – occasionally – and sweep the parks every few weeks. Sweeps redirect some of the homeless people, but most campers come back after a few days. The city has yet to offer a long-term solution aside from declaring a housing crisis and suggesting a rent freeze in the future.

I think that to solve the homelessness problem, Portland city commissioners need to be consistent with where they’re enforcing camping laws, instead of strategically allowing mass homelessness in already disadvantaged areas. The city of Portland performed sweeps just weeks after residents in Laurelhurst, a very wealthy neighbourhood, complained about campers in their central park. In Lents, it’s taken months of begging. However, sweeps and policing are not a long term solution to Portland’s rampant homeless crisis. Because it’s concentrated in certain areas, I’ll bet you that many Portlanders don’t know just how bad homelessness has become. If more folks were aware of the severity, it might be easier to start efforts by citizens to enact rent control or 90 day notices of rent increases.

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