Imagine a city in which some people have plenty, and some barely have anything at all.
There are houses, townhouses, apartments and mobile homes in which people have set up homes. Some people earn wages high enough to manage rent and mortgages, and some inherit their houses. Others spend the bulk of their income to stay housed, maybe skimping on health care or food. Others take on mounds of debt. A lucky few receive what many more need — vouchers and assistance and other forms of government subsidies. Strangely, though, far more subsidies are passed back to people who own a first or second home than to those who can’t afford one at all.
For others, houses are real estate investments — assets rather than homes. Taken to the extreme, those assets are bundled and sliced and diced — reduced to numbers corresponding to wealth rather than housing.
Where does that leave the rest of the people in this city? They sleep on couches of acquaintances, or in cars leaned into ditches. They shelter with others sleeping on mats and bunks. They pitch a tent on the edge of a busy road, or out of sight and in a forest, or camped in a cluster; each choice is its own form of safety to be visible or invisible or part of a community.
Still, others have less. They sleep stretched on the sidewalk, perhaps padded by lumps of laundry, in neighborhoods where the city removes their tents. This is because people don’t possess a right to housing in this city, our city, Portland, which is like cities across the United States in this regard.
Housing is treated as a means to wealth more than a staple of health. Many mental hospitals were shut down decades ago with the unmet promise of community mental health services, alongside other atrophied social services.
And yet, a police force is always sustained. A police force is a prioritized fact of life in the United States.
My intention is not to rehash specific debates about police budgets today, or get into details about hiring challenges. My intention is to simply state the particular outcomes Melissa Lewis reports in this issue are, in fact, the outcomes of values structured into municipal budgets.
In this issue, Street Roots is republishing Lewis’ latest analysis of the disproportionate arrest rate of unhoused people in West Coast cities, first published by Reveal. Lewis first broke ground in 2018 with Rebecca Woolington in The Oregonian when they showed over half of all 2017 arrests in Portland were of unhoused people. This was a pivotal moment for my thinking, and I’ve written many columns analyzing facets of it. Ultimately, Street Roots published a plan for an alternative system, Portland Street Response, on March 15, 2019, a program that went citywide in March.
Now Lewis, in collaboration with Emily Harris and Cecilia Brown, applied her research across West Coast cities — Portland, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego and Oakland. Unfortunately, Seattle does not track housing status well enough for Lewis to analyze its records.
All the cities she looked at disproportionately arrest unhoused people (she estimates that unhoused people make up about 2% of the population in each city), but Portland is the leader of the pack. From 2018 until 2020, 50% of all police arrests in Portland were of unhoused people. Sacramento was not far behind Portland at 42%.
Lewis makes clear that Portland places an outsized reliance on police as a response to homelessness, and unhoused people are far less likely to be arrested for violent crimes than housed people, Lewis reports.
Absurdly, more than 40% of arrests of unhoused people have to do with prior policing: warrants because people failed to show up for hearings for prior arrests that are often connected to crimes of homelessness. While many arrests are triggered by calls from unhoused people for non-criminal matters, they transform into criminal matters simply because police run warrant checks, and unhoused people are so often arrested for low-level offenses having to do with homelessness.
Policing is a regularly worked muscle that grows bulkier with use.
The city and county are funding alternatives for their budgets that begin Friday — Portland Street Response at $11.9 million for citywide service; more outreach workers through the Joint Office of Homeless Services. All of this is good and necessary — and it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure these programs succeed.
But ultimately, Lewis’ ongoing tracking is imperative knowledge for civic engagement, laying bare that what is prioritized is what, in fact, becomes our reality.
Because policing is prioritized when other systems are not, it is a default for all that ails the city, ailing the city more.
Street Roots is an award-winning weekly publication focusing on economic, environmental and social justice issues. The newspaper is sold in Portland, Oregon, by people experiencing homelessness and/or extreme poverty as means of earning an income with dignity. Street Roots newspaper operates independently of Street Roots advocacy and is a part of the Street Roots organization. Learn more about Street Roots. Support your community newspaper by making a one-time or recurring gift today.
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