Aug 16, 2023
Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said his decision to halt tent distribution was for fire safety. Emails tell a different story.
Foreshadowing things to come, Portland Commissioner Rene Gonzalez halted tent distribution by Portland Fire and Rescue personnel, including Portland Street Response, shortly after taking office,
Foreshadowing things to come, Portland Commissioner Rene Gonzalez halted tent distribution by Portland Fire and Rescue personnel, including Portland Street Response, shortly after taking office, saying an uptick in tent fires drove the decision.
“It has become clear that tent and tarp-related fires are a grave public safety emergency for our city,” Gonzalez said in the Feb. 14 press release announcing the ban. “Unsanctioned fires put our first responders, houseless individuals, and our neighborhoods at risk.”
At the time, Gonzalez framed the decision as one that would save lives.
“I am taking immediate action to save lives and protect Portlanders from life-shattering injuries,” he said. “To Portland’s houseless community members: I implore you to seek shelter in public warming centers during cold weather events.”
But Gonzalez authored a Jan. 11 memo directing Portland Fire and Rescue employees to bring all programs in compliance with Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan’s ban on unsanctioned encampments. Records also show staff voiced concerns the decision would endanger lives, input Gonzalez ultimately ignored.
Gonzalez did not respond to Street Roots' requests for comment for this article.
The memo, sent to Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications director Bob Cozzie, then-fire chief Sara Boone and Portland Bureau of Emergency Management director Shad Ahmed, directed recipients to bring their programs into compliance with Resolution 37595, the resolution City Council passed last November that initiated a phase-in of a formal ban on unsanctioned homeless encampments. City Council also recently passed new sit-lie-sleep guidelines forbidding public sleeping from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., among other restrictions.
Gonzalez directed city officials to provide an analysis and summary of policy and procedural changes that could “in compliance with applicable law, effectuate a citywide ban on self-sited unsanctioned encampments.”
The announcement came just ahead of a looming cold front during which temperatures in the city dropped to the 20s and 30s. In the announcement, Gonzalez told homeless Portlanders to “seek shelter in public warming centers during cold weather events.” But on any given day, the number of available shelter beds is far below the estimated 6,207 unsheltered Multnomah County residents.
It also fell on the same day Multnomah County released its 2021 Domicile Unknown report, the annual tally of homeless health and death data, which found 2021 was the deadliest year on record among homeless Portlanders — at least 193 homeless Multnomah County residents died that year. Eight of those deaths were from cold exposure or hypothermia, the report found.
Records obtained by Street Roots indicate an early push from the mayor’s office to end tent distribution by city bureaus. Internal communications show bureau staff warned Gonzalez and the mayor’s office of the risks associated with ending tent distribution during cold weather — warnings Gonzalez and Wheeler ultimately ignored.
On Dec. 14, 2022, Robyn Burek, Portland Street Response program manager, emailed senior officials from Wheeler’s office — Sam Adams, Wheeler’s then-director of strategic innovations, senior policy director Skyler Brocker-Knapp and director of safety Stephanie Howard, regarding possible changes to PSR’s tent distribution policy.
“Portland Street Response has received tents from the Joint Office of Homeless Services for distribution to the houseless community, which we consider a life-saving tool, particularly in these colder months when shelter is not available,” Burek wrote.
Burek also points out “a lack of shelters who will accept individuals with disabilities,” noting that 57% of the homeless population is disabled.
“We see this play out every day,” Burek explained. “Most shelters require that someone be able to care for themselves and be able to get into a top bunk on their own. This presents a real barrier to individuals who are in wheelchairs or even incontinent and soil themselves to access a shelter.”
In this exchange, Burek proposes waiting to halt distribution until other city services can mitigate the risks associated with a lack of shelter.
“We recognize that the Mayor and Council are working towards sanctioned campsites,” Burek wrote. “We’ve drafted a formal policy about tent distribution that has been reviewed and approved by Community Safety and Legal.”
Burek then requests guidance on formalizing the proposed changes, including waiting to halt distribution.
In a Jan. 10 email to Gonzalez — the day before Gonzalez ordered bureaus under his oversight to pause tent distribution — Burek forwarded her email to him, again noting the safety risks and explaining she had not received a response to her email but had received an email from Aaron Johnson, PFR legislative and policy manager, reiterating that bureaus bring their programs into compliance with the camping ban.
“I did receive an email from Aaron Johnson yesterday,” Burek wrote. “That we are to ‘bring all PF&R policies into alignment with Council’s shift away from non-sanctioned camping.’”
Burek goes on to ask for direction from Gonzalez, asking if PSR and CHAT, a PFR program designed to respond to low acuity medical calls, can continue distribution given that “the City has not set up the sanctioned campsites yet, and that there is a severe shortage of shelter beds available.”
“Our biggest concern centers on the fact that it’s winter, and we’re concerned about an individual's ability to stay medically and physically safe,” she wrote.
In yet another effort to communicate the impacts of halting tent distribution in winter months, Burek invited Shah Smith, Gonzalez’s chief of staff, to sign up for a shift at the shelter during preparations for pending cold weather.
“The timing of this winter event presents a unique opportunity for you to connect with the individuals that are directly impacted by the (...) policy we’ll be discussing,” she said.
While a legitimate concern, tent fires are not mentioned in any of these exchanges. PFR's tracking of these fires is also unreliable — as Street Roots reported in November 2022, it’s unclear how many fires classified as ‘homeless related’ actually involve homeless Portlanders.
While the numbers raise questions, PFR reports the rate of tent fires has climbed with rising numbers of homeless Portlanders, who use them for cooking and for warmth. In the past two years, there have been approximately 4,615 homeless-related fires — nearly half of the 9,888 total fires reported, according to PFR.
Of these, 1,105 were tent and tarp related. Homeless-related fires with injuries numbered 49 during this time, and six homeless Portlanders died in homeless-related fires during this time.
Since Gonzalez assumed leadership of PFR, the bureau housing Portland Street Response, the program has faced a period of turmoil. Originally spearheaded by then-Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the program dispatches mental health workers to 911 calls for people undergoing behavioral health crises — sidestepping police involvement. Hardesty championed the nationally recognized program and helped ensure its funding and stability.
Since Gonzalez took office in January, he halted tent distribution and ordered a hiring freeze. Staff shortages have limited the ability of PSR to expand, and spending cuts have winnowed away the program’s capacity to provide services to homeless Portlanders.
Beset by budget cuts and personnel turnover, including Boone's retirement and the resignation of PSR director Robyn Burek, the longevity and format of the program faces uncertainty about its future operations.
The embattled program has since spurred a grassroots coalition calling on the city to “Save Portland Street Response.” Composed of more than 40 representatives, including Sisters of the Road, Blanchet House and the Urban League of Portland, the coalition launched a petition demanding restoration and support for the program.
Editor's note: Street Roots Advocacy is involved with the Save Portland Street Response Campaign. The Street Roots newspaper maintains editorial independence from these efforts.
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