The city of Portland, Oregon is often painted as a progressive paradise, an enchanted landscape of food carts, footbridges, and bike lanes.
There’s some truth to that, but for Portland’s unhoused residents—around 38,000 people and rising—the Portlandia version of the city is a distant dreamscape. For them, every day is a grind to survive. With coronavirus, life has only gotten harder. “Sheltering in place” is nearly impossible when your “place” is susceptible to being swept at the behest of city officials and life is already extraordinarily precarious.
Due to inadequate access to hygiene and sanitation, homeless people are particularly susceptible to the ravages of coronavirus. “The COVID-19 pandemic is creating a severe and emergent health crisis for the homeless population across the United States,” one recent academic study concluded, “a crisis that our shelter and health systems are simply not adequately prepared to meet.” For unhoused folks—and therefore for the rest of us—the coronavirus is a ticking time bomb waiting to detonate.
Fortunately, an answer is sitting in plain sight: it’s time to commandeer hotels and motels, which are operating far below capacity, as a temporary option for homeless residents. Across Portland, developers have long benefited from generous tax breaks—some have also secured CARES funds. It’s beyond time to give back.
"For unhoused folks... the coronavirus is a ticking time bomb waiting to detonate."
In the City of Roses, as Portland is known, that means turning up the heat on a thorny political character: Gordon Sondland. Sondland, who in 2016 was named US ambassador to the European Union after donating $1 million to President Trump’s inauguration celebration, owns five hotels in Portland. He emerged as the star witness at the Trump impeachment hearings, embodying smugness and privilege in equal measure. Sondland, who was accused recently of sexual misconduct, has plenty to atone for. Two of his Portland hotels are historic buildings that enjoyed reduced tax bills. His Provenance Hotels received a Paycheck Protection Program loan from Trump’s Small Business Administration after laying off 1,000 employees.
Sondland is not alone. Deep-pocketed Portland developers and hoteliers have long raked in tax breaks. After passage of a 2017 federal law that created “opportunity zones” across the US, underinvested urban spaces that used tax breaks to instigate investment, Oregon Governor Kate Brown quizzically designated all of downtown Portland an “opportunity zone”—including posh areas like the “Pearl District”—thereby opening the city to ridicule as “Taxbreaklandia.” To become an “opportunity zone” one qualification is that an area must feature poverty rates above 20%, so eligibility springboards off the backs of the poor. This privilege protection racket needs to be turned on its head to protect Portland’s unhoused residents.
Cities up and down the west coast are clamoring for their mayors to take bold, decisive action to address the homelessness crisis. So far, these mayors have failed to answer the call.
In Los Angeles, only a fraction of the 15,000 hotel rooms allotted to LA County under California’s Project Roomkey have been filled. When activists showed up at LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s residence on Mother’s Day beseeching him to open up hotels for the houseless, he not only ignored them, but erected barricades to prevent future protests. Meanwhile, the mayor has proposed cuts to homeless programs by 6% while increasing the LA Police Department’s budget.
In San Francisco, after the city’s Board of Supervisors passed legislation to provide hotel rooms to people experiencing homelessness, Mayor London Breed has dragged her feet, citing safety concerns. Instead, Breed is arguing for city-sanctioned open-air camps, which police have long persecuted, even slashing nylon tents with knives to break up encampments. Hotels are being filled at a trickle.
"Given the fact that many hoteliers have for years accepted tax breaks, they owe a social debt. It’s Karma time."
At least in Los Angeles and San Francisco they’re acting—if at a glacial pace—to move the unhoused into hotels. In Portland, the conversation hasn’t even really begun. Mayor Ted Wheeler, in the throes of a re-election campaign, has hyped his concern about homelessness: “No other issue is a higher priority in this administration.” But meaningful follow-through has been lacking.
Wheeler could make amends by starting with his old pal Gordon Sondland and his five boutique hotels in Portland. Sondland donated around $16,000 to Wheeler’s campaign fund. (Under pressure, the mayor eventually announced he would donate the money to various charities).
Other low-hanging fruit is readily available. Portland secured two hotels for unsheltered residents exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. Only one of those hotels is currently housing people, and it is only partially filled.
The mayor in Portland enjoys extraordinary emergency powers. Under a State of Emergency order—which Wheeler has declared and then extended—the mayor has the power to “provide temporary or permanent housing by purchase, lease or otherwise and to enter into arrangements necessary to prepare or equip the living units for occupancy.” In other words, Mayor Wheeler has power to commandeer hotel and motel rooms for the city’s unsheltered residents. To be sure, this should not come at the expense of permanent supportive housing. Hotels and motels should be stepping stones toward long-term, permanent housing.
With Portland’s hotel occupancy rates plummeting by 75% in recent weeks, hotels are starved for business. Plus, given the fact that many hoteliers have for years accepted tax breaks, they owe a social debt. It’s Karma time.
Now is the time to act. Many unhoused people have respiratory diseases and weakened immune systems from living on the streets, making them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Often they present medically as more than two decades older than they actually are, catapulting them into a higher-risk age category. And let’s not forget: as unemployment soars, many more people will become homeless. One analysis projects an increase in homelessness by 40 to 45% by the end of 2020. In Oregon, nearly one in five workers have applied for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Many are keen to point out that the coronavirus itself does not discriminate. But the underlying healthcare and economic systems have long discriminated against the working poor and the unhoused. Like homelessness, the emergence of COVID-19 has disproportionately hit the poor, and in the United States that means it hits Indigenous people, African Americans, and Latinx people.
Homelessness is a humanitarian crisis in plain sight and a bleak indictment of capitalism. Now the capitalists have a chance—a duty, really—to step up in the clutch. West coast mayors need to commandeer hotels and motels for the common good.