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The Problem with Portland – Frank McNally on an American utopia gone wrong

City’s homeless crisis is obvious on every street

If you think Dublin has a homelessness problem – and it does, of course – you should see Portland, Oregon. During a literary conference there at the weekend, I went wandering the streets of the city centre. And used as I thought I was to scenes of urban life gone wrong, the state of the place shocked me.

One busy street, not far from the high-end department stores, had seven or eight tents pitched along the footpath. But there were tents in ones and twos almost everywhere. Drug addiction is equally obvious. Without looking hard, I saw several of the occupants shooting up. They didn’t try to hide it. And not everyone who needed one had a tent. Overladen shopping trolleys were another common sight, pushed through the streets by people in between addresses, who store everything they own in bags.

Tents and trolleys aside, meanwhile, although surely also a big part of the problem, the other instantly striking thing was the number of people with psychiatric problems. The bare-chested man prowling a square near my hotel, shouting at no one in particular, was not untypical.

You see such people in Irish cities too, just not as many, or in such a confined space. When I arrived back in Dublin on Monday morning, it seemed – even on Halloween – a calmer and more civilised place than I remembered.


Portland is most ways a highly civilised city. It has, for example, one of the world’s largest bookshops – maybe the largest. The vast Powell’s City of Books, houses a million new and used volumes on two sprawling floors. Like the car parks in Dundrum Shopping Centre, but in a better cause, its departments have to be colour-coded or you’d get lost.

Portland is also home to what has been called “the most beautiful and authentic Japanese gardens outside of Japan”. I visited those too and the praise is justified. A sublime combination of trees, water, and rock, they would calm even the most troubled soul.

The city has many fine, characterful old buildings too, including an atmospheric Chinatown built by its earliest settlers in the mid-19th century. And yes, in keeping with its reputation, it also has some of the US’s coolest cafes.

As fans of the comedy sketch series Portlandia (I belatedly watched some of it recently, stony-faced, but am assured it used to be funny) will know, the place is a haven for hipsters. It’s “where young people go to retire”, according to the joke. Locals, or at least the ones who can afford to, have a certain style, in dress and attitude. Still, the homelessness and the drugs are the dominant memory of a weekend visit. In fairness to Portland, I seem to have caught it at its worst. Only last week, the city mayor called the crisis “nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe”, while announcing plans to move all tents off-street to designated campsites.

Mind you, the city first declared an official state of emergency on homelessness back in 2015 and has extended it regularly since. But in the last year or two, a combination of housing shortages, Covid, and a surge in drug addiction rates have made things worse than ever.

Portland is not unique in its problems, even on the US west coast. San Francisco and Seattle also have dire homelessness statistics, for the same reasons, although the crises may be less generally visible there and more concentrated in such places as SF’s notorious Tenderloin district.

In a controversial recent book, San Fransicko: Why Progressives Ruin Cities, Michael Shellenberger blamed the extent of the problem on misguided liberal policies. A former Democratic candidate for state governor, he credited in part a culture of victimology, in which society’s underclasses are excused all personal responsibility for their actions. Republicans loved the book. Many Democrats hated it. According to The Atlantic magazine, “virtually every homelessness expert” rejected Shellenberger’s thesis. But the extent and visibility of the problem in the west coast’s would-be liberal utopias is a stick with which red-state leaders enjoy beating liberals.

Drugs, mental illness and high rents aside, the Pacific states’ sheer liveability is part of their problem. Where the Statue of Liberty welcomed the “wretched refuse of your teeming shore” from Europe and beyond, rootless poor Americans have always drifted westward in search of an easier life.

The forgiving weather is one obvious draw. As miserable as it looked on a rainy Saturday afternoon in late October, a footpath in Portland is a better place to face the winter than one in New York or Philadelphia. On its own, at least, living in a tent in Oregon probably won’t kill you.