Aaron Porter stood on the steps of Portland City Hall Friday night and issued a plea to the city’s general population on behalf of himself and other homeless people.

“We’d like to have what’s considered a normal, everyday life, like you,” said Porter, 25, who said he’s been homeless for about eight years.

Porter spoke as part of a news conference and rally at the site of a housing crisis protest at City Hall that began Wednesday, with people sleeping at the site in tents and under tarps. Just minutes earlier organizers issued a list of sweeping demands of city officials aimed at curbing homelessness.

The demands included defunding the police and reallocating money for essential services, like mental health care. They also called for the city to  decriminalize camping out by unsheltered people, establish overdose prevention sites, make plans for permanent affordable housing led by impacted people and extend an eviction freeze.

The encampment has been growing since Wednesday, as more people have pitched tents and delivered supplies to support the cause. By Friday night there were a dozen  tents, canopies and tarps set up as shelter on the sidewalk plaza in front of City Hall.

Porter told the crowd that he had stumbled across the camping protest Wednesday, when it was raining and he was soaked, and he had nowhere to sleep that night. He said others in the protest gave him blankets, clothes and a tent to sleep under.

“I felt safe on the streets for the first time in my life,” Porter told the crowd.

Organizers said the protest is not the work of any one group or organization, but is being led by young people who experienced homelessness in conjunction with other community members. The protest was joined Friday night by about 200 people who had gathered in Lincoln Park an hour earlier as part of a march to show solidarity with people in Portland, Oregon. That city has been experiencing nightly violence as people protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis two months ago have been confronted by federal agents who’ve used tear gas, pepper spray and physical force to control them.

The organizers of the camping protest had issued a statement Thursday to explain some of their goals.

“Protesters have called for a change in tone in the public conversation about the housing crisis. Many have spoken on destigmatizing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness,” the statement said.

Protesters said their goals are to draw attention to the struggles faced by people who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity. They have already asked the city to designate a spot “where the rules against camping will not apply, so that anyone who is unable to access overnight shelter services can still have a safe space at night.” They also want a daytime warming shelter established by winter; one or more overdose prevention sites and additional needle exchange services; and greater support for “organizations providing food to the homeless.”

“By recognizing our shared humanity, we are reminded that we are all in this together and compassion becomes the driving force,” the organizers said in their statement. “When we lift from the bottom, everyone rises. We do not want anyone to feel invisible. Instead we hope to see suffering end, and everyone rise.”

Their demands come just days before a Portland City Council workshop on issues related to homelessness, people staying in Deering Oaks and the ongoing protest at City Hall. That discussion will be held Monday at the end of a virtual meeting that will start at 5:30 p.m.

The city issued a news release Friday afternoon saying 10 different projects have been approved or are under review by the city that will add nearly 900 units of housing, including some housing units that will be affordable to middle income workers.

“Progress toward our council and community goal to create more affordable housing opportunities in Portland remains front and center,” Mayor Kate Snyder said in the news release.

In addition to the city’s commitment to providing emergency shelter and social services, Portland’s government is focused on advancing permanent housing opportunities, the release said. At least some of the projects are being supported by City Council housing incentives and funds from the city housing trust fund, which collects fees from developers to build affordable housing.

During the pandemic, the city also is operating three shelters and housing about 200 people in hotels. Earlier this month, the nonprofit Preble Street closed its Bayside site operations and started serving to-go meals around the city as a precaution against spreading the coronavirus.

The city told Preble Street to stop distributing meals at Deering Oaks this week when passers-by began to complain about people gathering in the park. Preble Street is still delivering food at other locations, and the city has said they are working with the organization toward an agreement for meal distribution.

Organizers have said they will likely stay at City Hall at least through the weekend.

“Our hope is to work with the city on these issues, to have people the most affected by homelessness feel like their voices are being heard,” Porter said.

 

Staff Writer Ray Routhier contributed to this report.


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