The unauthorized sign. (Photo: The Street Trust)

Earlier this week, people in southeast Portland neighborhoods reported curious signs on the street. The signs were advertising the Oregon Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program: a partnership between state, city and local nonprofits to make it safer and easier for kids to walk, bike and roll to school.

The only thing different from an official the Safe Routes to School sign was a statement on the bottom that read “No Camping.” 

These signs – which two ODOT SRTS coordinators confirmed are unsanctioned – comes after a City of Portland ban on homeless people camping along routes designated safe for kids to get to school. Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler issued this ban shortly before the school year began this fall, barring people from camping in a very large swath of the Portland area.

Wheeler’s edict spoke to a real concern from parents whose children go to school in areas where there is a lot of street and sidewalk camping, but it provoked backlash among many Portlanders who felt it was a cruel and clumsy way to approach the problem. 

People who criticized the Mayor’s decision pointed out that, statistically speaking, homeless people camping along school walking routes are much less likely than people driving cars to be a threat to children on their way to school. Instead of sweeping encampments, leaving many people with no place to go, they said Wheeler should focus on making streets safer for people traveling outside of cars. 

This comes at a crucial crossroads for Portland’s homelessness policy. Last week, Willamette Week reported Wheeler has plans to announce yet another camping ban that would apply citywide. Under this plan, unhoused people would be moved into 500-person sanctioned camping “campuses” across the city – a similar suggestion to the largely-unfavored idea mayoral aide Sam Adams proposed back in February

Last week’s news about the proposed citywide ban didn’t seem to make a huge wave in homeless advocacy circles. Katrina Holland, who directs the housing nonprofit JOIN, posted a statement on Twitter calling the plan a “pie in the sky” political ploy and telling Portlanders not to give the news too much energy. 

Portland City Council candidate Rene Gonzalez, who has centered his campaign against opponent Jo Ann Hardesty on her approach to crime and homelessness, took word of the potential ban as an opportunity to weigh in on the state of the city in a manner that was alarming to many. 

In a tweet, Gonzalez called Portland “overrun and under siege” and suggested jailing those who continue to camp on the streets after bans have been enforced. If Gonzalez wins a seat on City Council, homeless advocates fear his approach will gain steam and lead to even worse outcomes. In recent debates and media interviews, Gonzalez has repeatedly mentioned his concerns about people living on cycling corridors like the I-205 and Springwater paths.

Transportation advocacy non-profit The Street Trust, whose logo appears on the unsanctioned signs, tweeted a statement giving members permission to remove these signs on their behalf. 

“We support only proven, equitable programs & policies to achieve safe routes to school,” TST’s tweet says. 

Recent stories about the benefits of programs like Sam Balto’s viral bike buses and a growing awareness of the deadly road conditions on streets like Powell Blvd (which is home to Cleveland High School) have led many people to champion transportation-based solutions to our biggest safety problems. None of the proposed solutions from transportation advocates include conducting homeless camp sweeps.

It’s unclear who put these signs up. But the situation speaks to a growing divide among Portland advocates, elected officials and the general public about how to address the issue of people living in the public right-of-way.

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