Portland mayor suggests easing process to involuntarily commit people with mental health struggles

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Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler wants it to be easier to force people living on the streets into hospitals — even if they have not committed a crime.

“When I see people walking through the elements without appropriate attire, often naked, they are freezing to death, they are exposed to the elements … I don’t even know if they know where they are or who they are,” Wheeler told a room full of business owners recently, “They need help and they need compassion.”

Wheeler’s comments came at a meeting to discuss crime in Portland’s Central Eastside. The mayor held the forum after the owner of Portland’s well-known ice cream brand Salt & Straw threatened to leave the city and amid his own effort to get tougher on public camping. He was asked directly at the forum whether he would support hospitalizing more people involuntarily.

Wheeler prepped the audience, saying he would be “resoundingly excoriated” for his comments.

But, yes, he continued, he believes it’s time to consider lowering the threshold for civil commitments and force the city’s most vulnerable to get mental health help against their will. Right now, a person can only be civilly committed by a judge’s order and if they pose an urgent danger to themselves or others and are unable to care for their basic needs.

The audience applauded the mayor’s call, a striking response in a city that has historically prided itself on its compassionate and empathetic approach to helping the unhoused and those struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

“We are in the middle of a shift from where the majority of people who were once sympathetic to the homeless are now angry,” said Jason Renaud, with the Mental Health Association of Portland. “And people are angry at the homeless and blame them. It’s a shift that comes from the county, the city and the state not doing anything about this problem, to the point where people get mad.”

Wheeler’s plan to tackle the growing crisis on the streets includes a “90-day reset” in the industrial eastside of the city, which would boost the number of law enforcement in the area and likely result in more homeless camp sweeps. It’s a similar approach to what was used in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood earlier this year and a strategy some have criticized as compounding the problem.

Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots, wrote: “It’s hard not to feel exasperated at the shortsightedness, at best, and cruelty, at worst.”

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