Opinion: Rene Gonzalez’s Tent Ban is Cruel

In addition to being Chair of the Multnomah County Democrats, I am also a public defender. I work with the unhoused population every day. I can tell you from personal experience (and a massive amount of empirical research) that nothing is more helpful to the unhoused, and nothing ensures safety to the community in which they live, more than providing basic housing. I stand with our houseless population, I stand for the safety of our community, and I stand for providing housing, not as a privilege, but as a right.

I urge Portland City Commissioner Rene Gonzalez to reverse course on his cruel response to the housing crisis. In February, Rene Gonzalez banned Portland Street Response from distributing tents to the houseless citing fire danger. Resorting to human rights violations should be the last, not the first, resort in the fight against houselessness, and the dangers that those afflicted by it face. The burden is on those advocating for cruel solutions to complex problems to prove that we have no other options. We do have another option—treating housing as a human right—something which Commissioner Gonzalez opposes.

I was tempted to write about the relative differences between how many people die from fires versus how many people die from exposure to the cold—a massive snowstorm hit Portland just days after this cruel policy was announced. But this, tacitly or otherwise, places the responsibility for proving the cruelty of this policy on its opponents, with such statements as, “[h]ypothermia is a risk, as is frostbite. But when talking about frostbite, you’re losing fingers but these burns, they’re life-changing even if they don’t kill you.” You’ll usually then see some statistic about how many houseless burn victims there are each year that doesn’t directly address the comparison we’re being asked to make. 

If we’re going to resort to an approach this cruel, the burden is on those advocating for it to show that we have no other options. Questions should have been addressed well in advance of now. Questions like: how many burns and fires are the direct result of having tents? And, how do you know that removing access to tents will help? It’s hard to help but wonder if the real reason behind this policy is the belief that if the city is just inhumane enough, it can force people into compliance with its desires—go where we want you or get out. But, we already have a proven solution to these problems that Commissioner Gonzales ironically rejects as an “ideology.” 

Housing is a human right and providing housing as a right is an evidence-based approach to ending houselessness. That’s where the discussion should sit, not in distraction land where we’re forced to make a choice about how we want our houseless population to suffer and die. Housing first, or treating housing as a right and not a privilege, is compassionate, successful, and well-documented. Tarrant County, Texas (home to Fort Worth) reduced homelessness by 40% from 2020-2021 using a housing-first model. Utah experienced a 91% drop in chronic homelessness after enacting housing first policies— progress which was promptly reversed when funding ended.  According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “[o]ne study found an average cost savings on emergency services of $31,545 per person housed in the course of two years. Another study showed that a Housing First approach can cost up to $23,000 less per consumer per year than a shelter program.” Commissioner Gonzalez should join Multnomah County commissioners such as Susheela Jayapal and Jessica Vega Peterson who support housing first.

However, if guaranteeing housing as a right goes too far, how ‘bout we compromise? I’m all for guaranteeing housing at $250/month. That’s the same price that Commissioner Gonzalez rented downtown office space from a wealthy donor after that donor exceeded the maximum contribution to Gonzalez’s campaign. In the meantime, if Commissioner Gonzalez can’t be a housing-first advocate, he can at least be tent-first. 

Want to comment? Contact MultDems Chair Michael Burleson at chair@MultDems.org.

The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of Michael Burleson and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the Democratic Party of Multnomah County. The 2022 Platform of the Democratic Party of Multnomah County includes legislative action items relating to housing.