A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece about how Portland's homeless crisis has evolved into a chronic condition.
I proposed an idea to then Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler of transforming Portland's Office of Neighborhood Involvement into a Portland Corps, a la the Peace Corps, to provide on-the-ground services to our homeless citizens. In the civic cacophony of ideas to address homelessness, my idea, like too many Portlanders, was vagabond.
Homeless camps, like pot shops, are popping up everywhere. Each has their own distinct culture, customs and environment. After nearly two decades of government funding, half-baked ordinances, and affordable housing Ponzi schemes, homelessness has only flourished.
It is time we embrace and commodify the homeless experience. Three years ago, a pot dealer was simply a criminal, now they rebranded themselves as entrepreneurs, hip horticulturist, and purveyors of pain relief. Perhaps homelessness is just a failing brand, not a societal failure.
Portland is weird. We are supposed to do things differently. We desperately need new perspectives to address our city's booming homeless population. Sadly, we remain moored to a failing bureaucratic brand.
The Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) is the latest reiteration of these failed ideas. JOHS, a collaborative bureaucracy composed of the City of Portland and Multnomah County, will spend over $58 million to "oversee the delivery of services to people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County."
To their credit, they clearly haven't spent a dime on their website which is a one-page hodgepodge of blog link articles — $58 million can't even buy a mission statement. The only thing worse than their website is the Multnomah County auditor's report, which raises serious concerns about how the money is spent and the bureau's ability to hold service providers accountable.
Taking pot shots at a bungling bureaucracy also is a tired brand. Without question, the city, county and social service organizations are working hard to address these difficult issues, but they are stuck in the bland bureaucratic brand that sees homelessness as a problem rather than an investment opportunity.
With their $58 million budget, JOHS should fund a feasibility study on the potential profitability of our homeless. Homeless encampments could become the hottest tourist destinations. People travel from all over the world to drink our wine, consume our cannabis, and eat at overhyped food carts. If travelers enjoy discerning the tannins in our pinots and ogling trichomes on our marijuana buds, then surely they'd be interested in interacting with our diverse homeless population.
The ability of our homeless to endure constant judgment, negotiate territory, establish communities, survive upheaval, manage their mental and physical health, find love, raise their kids, forage for food, and simply survive should be billed as the 10th wonder of the world.
Enterprising businesses could create joint ventures with different homeless communities. Tourists could immerse themselves in different aspects of homelessness: spending a week walking the Springwater Corridor visiting different enclaves, panhandling at high-end grocery stores, dining at drop-in centers, being mugged, or hauling cans to distant recycling centers.
The sponsorship opportunities are endless — Nike or Adidas could make apparel deals with homeless groups; Airbnb could coordinate accommodations; and Wieden & Kennedy could market the experience.
Boom or bust, rebranding homelessness offers consumers a moment to ponder why capitalizing on homelessness seems less absurd than ending it.