3 things to know about Portland’s spat with Multnomah County over tents and tarps (2024)

Under pressure from Portland Commissioner Rene Gonzalez, Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson agreed last week to pause the purchasing of tents and tarps that are distributed to people who are homeless, but she later clarified that the county would continue to distribute ones it already paid for, as reported by KATU.

Now Portland lawyer John DiLorenzo, the attorney behind a legal settlement last year that forced Portland to clear more tents from city sidewalks, is warning Portland officials that Multnomah County’s decision could come back to bite them.

It’s the latest wedge opponents of street camping are forcing into the debate over how Portland and county officials work together to address homelessness in the region. The Portland City Council is primed to vote on that partnership — known as the “homelessness response system” agreement — Wednesday.

Gonzalez, who is running for Portland mayor, has been railing against the proliferation of tents in the city since at least last year, saying they posed a fire risk. More recently, when county officials approved a budget that included funding for 6,500 additional tents, he argued that the city is paying millions to clean up discarded, dangerous or dirty tents — and that the county just pumps new ones into the streets.

In 2023, at least 372 fires in Portland involved tents or encampments, Portland Fire and Rescue figures show.

“Our community is overwhelmed with encampments, including unsanitary conditions and environmental damage, violence and other crimes, and debilitating drug use that such encampments bring to public spaces in our city,” he wrote in a letter to county commissioners in June.

Vega Pederson agreed to pause tent purchases while the agreement is hashed out, but she said changing the tent distribution policy would require more discussion with city commissioners and other officials.

“It is all a part of having a humane response to those living on our streets while we increase our housing and shelter capacity,” Vega Pederson told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a statement.

Here are answers to a few of the most pressing questions around the county’s policy on passing out tarps and tents.

How many tents does the county have left and when are they distributed?

As of Monday, the Joint Office of Homeless Services has a little over a month’s supply of tents — 747 — and 11,080 tarps in storage. The city-county funded agency handed out around 6,500 tents and over 24,000 tarps from May 2023 to May 2024.

The joint office doesn’t directly supply tents or tarps to people on the streets, but instead allows the outreach organizations it works with to stock up from the supply center once a month or during events and emergencies, county spokesperson Julia Comnes said. Over 80 providers tap into those supplies, and each can take up to five tents per month.

Providers who receive the tents are “expected to distribute them using their best informed judgment to unsheltered individuals they encounter during outreach activities who lack other shelter options,” officials said. But the county has no formal policies dictating when and where tents can be handed out.

Why is this a problem for Portland?

In May 2023, Portland’s city government reached a legal agreement with 10 residents who have, or care for people with, physical disabilities. DiLorenzo, a lawyer with Davis Wright Tremaine, represented the group to work out the terms of the settlement, which included clearing more camps from sidewalks and walkways.

In an email to the Portland City Council and City Attorney Robert Taylor on Friday, DiLorenzo argued that if the city and county approve the new homelessness agreement without changing county policy on tent and tarp supply, Portland would default on its settlement.

The settlement requires that the city and its contractors only distribute tarps and tents when there is severe winter weather, when it would replace a tent damaged during a campsite sweep or when it would encourage homeless individuals to move so an encampment can be cleaned.

DiLorenzo argued that if Portland officials renewed their partnership with Multnomah County, it would make the county a “contractor,” meaning that their tent and tarp policy would be violating the city’s settlement agreement. He said city officials shouldn’t enter the homelessness response agreement until the county ends its tent handouts.

“Our position is that the city shouldn’t be doing business with someone who is frustrating their existing agreements,” DiLorenzo said Monday.

DiLorenzo said he and his clients would take legal action if no changes are made to the county’s tent distribution rules.

Mayor Ted Wheeler did not respond to a request for comment by Monday afternoon.

This dialogue comes as Portland begins enforcing its scaled-back homeless camping ban that requires people who are offered shelter to accept it or face penalties. It also directs those living on the street to keep their camping area clean if they can’t get into a shelter.

What’s next?

Last week, members of the Portland City Council amended the homelessness response agreement with the county to expand a key oversight committee, and all but Commissioner Mingus Mapps signaled they would vote to approve it Wednesday.

Portland officials added one other stipulation to the new partnership which requires both parties to sit down in October to discuss the impact of the homeless response strategy and the policy on tarps and tents. As part of the agreement, either the city or county can exit the partnership at any time.

The agreement will likely go back to the county for approval July 10. The previous Joint Office of Homeless Services agreement that established in 2016 how the two government’s respond to homelessness ended June 30, but all shelters and outreach services will run as planned, officials said.

— Austin De Dios covers Multnomah County politics, programs and more. Reach him at 503-319-9744, adedios@oregonian.com or @AustinDeDios.

Our journalism needs your support. Subscribe today to OregonLive.com.

If you purchase a product or register for an account through a link on our site, we may receive compensation. By using this site, you consent to our User Agreement and agree that your clicks, interactions, and personal information may be collected, recorded, and/or stored by us and social media and other third-party partners in accordance with our Privacy Policy.

3 things to know about Portland’s spat with Multnomah County over tents and tarps (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Twana Towne Ret

Last Updated:

Views: 5883

Rating: 4.3 / 5 (64 voted)

Reviews: 87% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Twana Towne Ret

Birthday: 1994-03-19

Address: Apt. 990 97439 Corwin Motorway, Port Eliseoburgh, NM 99144-2618

Phone: +5958753152963

Job: National Specialist

Hobby: Kayaking, Photography, Skydiving, Embroidery, Leather crafting, Orienteering, Cooking

Introduction: My name is Twana Towne Ret, I am a famous, talented, joyous, perfect, powerful, inquisitive, lovely person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.