Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler shared his list of legislative priorities with Governor-elect Tina Kotek on Tuesday, asking the state to help manage the city’s crises.
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is asking Oregon Governor-elect Tina Kotek and the state legislature to help address what he sees as the city’s biggest crises during the upcoming legislative session.
Wheeler shared his list of priorities with Kotek during a meeting Tuesday.
At the top of his wish list, which KGW received following a records request Wednesday, Wheeler asked Kotek to declare a state of emergency on the homelessness crisis in Oregon.
He said this declaration would allow Portland to use emergency management or disaster resources, including using the National Guard to help set up the designated camping sites outlined in his own plan for the city.
Wheeler first introduced his plan in October to ban street camping and move homeless people to three large tent encampments. It was adopted by Portland City Council, with the sanctioned camp portion changed to six smaller sites, although the plan currently lacks specific camp locations or enough funding to move forward.
Addressing Kotek, Wheeler added that an emergency declaration could allow Portland to purchase supplies from a FEMA-subsidized disaster supplies list, and suggested the state legislature should allocate direct funding to each Oregon city for city leaders to use to address homelessness response and prevention.
Kotek has said that she would declare a state of emergency for homelessness — even criticizing Gov. Kate Brown for failing to do so. An emergency declaration was one of the few things that all candidates for Oregon governor ahead of the November election seemed to agree upon.
Additionally, Wheeler asked the Oregon state legislature to change standards of care for people with severe mental illness.
This year, through KGW’s investigative series “Uncommitted,” investigative reporter Evan Watson shared how Oregon’s standards for civil commitment — or forced mental health care — are high, leading to a system that can fail to provide care to people with severe symptoms of mental illness.
Family members like Brenda Gardner said the current system fails people like her son Eric who have turned down mental health treatment, creating a cycle of temporary detentions and releases without sustained care.
“As far as I’m concerned, the homeless situation is an open-air psych ward,” Gardner said. “Those people that should be in psychiatric facilities or in supported housing with a case worker that checks on them are instead living on the street and being treated like animals.”
Wheeler wants the legislature to lower civil commitment standards in the upcoming 2023 session, a much quicker timeline than outlined in the work of an Oregon Judicial Department workgroup which is reviewing state standards in order to potentially recommend changes ahead of the 2025 session.
Lowering standards for civil commitment would make it easier for people to be forced to get mental health treatment, a threshold which is currently high to protect individuals’ civil rights.
Wheeler said these reforms should be linked with expanded community mental health treatment efforts to avoid sending people to jails, emergency rooms, and the already-full Oregon State Hospital.
Next up on his wish list, Wheeler asked for help on Portland’s roads to hopefully catch illegal drivers and car thieves. He requested that the Oregon State Police help Portland with traffic enforcement over the next year to reduce traffic fatalities and the rising number of car thefts.
At the judicial level, Wheeler requested pay parity and other resources for public defense attorneys.
In our investigative series “Injustice,” investigative reporter Kyle Iboshi shared multiple perspectives from Oregon’s broken public defender system, showing how there are not enough attorneys to represent low-income defendants, leading to delayed or dismissed cases.
“It’s hard having too much work to be able to do,” said public defense attorney Willy Chotzen. “Knowing what best practices would look like but not having the time to do every single thing that would help my clients and help my cases.”
Mayor Wheeler listed a few other funding requests on his wish list, including state funding for affordable housing development, new funding and capacity for police officer training, and expanded Medicaid funding eligibility.
Last week, Governor-elect Tina Kotek started her listening tour around Oregon and listed her top three priorities: mental and behavioral health care, early childhood education and housing.
The 2023 legislative session begins on January 17.