Building On Our Strengths

Over the last three years, the state and capital in the Portland metro area have sent another 1200 people to living on the streets. The most recent Point-in-time count for the Portland metro area was released recently, and the count tallied 5228 people without homes in Multnomah County, which contains Portland. This is despite pledges of action by the state, despite taxes passed and some amount of housing built. What should we, as anarchists and urbanists, make of this, and how should we respond to the ongoing crisis of people living and dying in the cold and wet of the Portland street?

The fault for the housing crisis must be laid firmly at the feet of the state, and specifically at the tepid reformers who do not act with the speed and severity needed to house people. Portland’s city government has been led by centrist Democrats for the last few years. A housing state of emergency was declared in 2015, under the previous mayor. Despite the life or death nature of the crisis – homeless people have died each winter and especially the 2021 summer – the city moves slowly to build housing, careful not to upset homeowners. They devote resources to police and camp clean-up and sweeping, instead of housing. Finally, they prevent popular initiatives from solving the problem from below.

What popular initiatives are emerging from below? There are several, and it is in these that part of the solution to the housing crisis will be found. Anarchists and others in Portland have organized to directly address the harms caused by state and capitalist deprivation of housing. Some of the noteworthy ones are:Rolling Cabins, which has created an open source design for a movable, insulated cabin; Portland People’s Outreach Project, which distributes meth pipes that allow safer drug consumption than intravenous needles; and finally Heaterbloc, which designed and distributed a tent-safe alcohol heater that eliminates a potential cause of tent fire. What unites these all is that they begin from the actual conditions and problems that face the homeless. In endeavoring to help with these smaller problems, they then allow for a greater capability for the homeless themselves to act.

The anarchist movement in Portland, and elsewhere, should expand on these tactics and couple them with confrontational direct action. We should build shelters like the Hexayurt or the aforementioned rolling cabins in abandoned and disused parking lots. We should set up spaces for the safe administration of drugs in these same places, and we should build things like solar and rocket stoves for people, and use these devices to cook for people (for the rocket stoves, we could even pulp the local papers to make fuel).

Doing this would cause a confrontation with the city. At best, they will denounce such actions. At worst, they will send the cops to beat and destroy these liberatory spaces. This is a risk that our movement should take – it is a way for the housed to expand on existing solidarity with the unhoused. This approach would build on the strengths that anarchists and our allies have already shown in providing help to the homeless and increasing the strength and autonomy of homeless folks. It would turn this into a threat to the business and homeowner centered politics of this town. It would expose them as callous, concerned only with image and money and not people’s lives.

I propose this as a tactic because would help solve pressing issues, are extensible, low-tech, and are within our grasp as a movement. They show the problems with the state, with capitalist land use patterns, and put our ideas into practice.