the zone
Phoenix Officials Visit Portland, Oregon For Advice On Handling Homelessness

July 2, 2023

By Corinne Murdock |

The city of Phoenix sought advice on handling homelessness from another city plagued by the same problem: Portland, Oregon. 

City officials attended a “homelessness summit” in May. Officials included Gina Montes, deputy city manager; Rachel Milne, director of the Office of Homeless Solutions (OHS); Scott Hall, deputy director of OHS; Titus Mathew, director of the city’s housing department; Sean Connolly, assistant chief of operations for Phoenix Police Department (PPD); Brian Fruendentahl, commander of PPD; Luke Christian, assistant city attorney.

“Given our issues and the continued increase in unsheltered homelessness, the crime and other complex problems, we have been in touch with other communities to see what we can learn (both from their successes and mistakes),” wrote Montes in an invitation email for the event.

Officials from the cities of Mesa and Glendale were invited on the trip, but it appears from records obtained by AZ Free News that a visit to Portland either didn’t sound appealing or beneficial. In a March email exchange, the city of Mesa’s deputy city manager, Natalie Lewis, asked why Montes and the city of Phoenix felt the need to go to Portland as well as Seattle, Washington — another proposed location for a homelessness summit. 

Glendale’s director of community services, Jean Moreno, concurred with Lewis’ remarks.

“Our feedback was the same as Mesa’s — happy to participate but not sure Portland is the right field trip,” wrote Moreno. 

Montes responded that Phoenix could learn much from Portland’s mistakes. She revealed that many of the issues facing Phoenix currently were the same as those Portland faced in the past. Meaning: Portland could be Phoenix’s future, if changes aren’t made.

“The reason we are interested in Portland is honestly because a lot of the same issues are happening here that happened there years ago. They made a lot of mistakes that they are paying for now. I’m concerned that our community trajectory is pointing in a similar direction,” wrote Montes. “I understand if Portland is not of interest to others and promise not to be offended!”

The homeless in Portland have taken over residential neighborhoods and public streets, with residents telling reporters that the crime-riddled mass encampments decimated quality of life.

Lewis turned down the invitation, sharing that she may attend a potential future trip to either San Antonio or Houston, Texas, potentially around the same time as this fall’s ICMA Conference in Austin, Texas. Lewis added that the breakup of the mass homeless encampment known as The Zone would likely impact her city.

“Also, I foresee the work to dismantle/relocate will impact Mesa. I am open to having a regional discussion on this (when Phx is ready) so that we are all working to minimize impact of the shift,” wrote Lewis.

Montes issued the proposal to visit either Portland or Seattle on March 29: two days after the Maricopa County Superior Court ordered the city to clean up The Zone.

Estimates of the homeless population in the Portland area hovers around 5,000, based on Multnomah County data. Phoenix’s homeless population sits around 3,000. 

AZ Free News asked Montes whether city officials would attend similar summits in other cities who’ve mitigated homelessness in recent years such as Austin, Texas. Montes didn’t respond by press time. 

City of Phoenix officials were also joined by officials from the Maricopa Association of Governments (MAG), Maricopa County, and the city of Avondale. MAG representatives were Continuum of Care officials Amy St. Peter, deputy executive director, and Katy Gentry, regional homelessness program manager. Maricopa County officials were Jacqueline Edwards, human services director, and T.J. Reed, homelessness programs manager. City of Avondale representatives were Cherlene Penilla, assistant city manager; Dale Nannenga, chief of the Office of Public Safety; Memo Espinoza, chief of Avondale Police; Manuel Rios, sergeant of Avondale Police; and Brian Planty, homeless services manager. 

The cost for the trip, for all 16 officials in attendance, likely totaled around $10,000. (Based on averages of flight, hotel, and per diem costs compiled from MAG travel request forms).

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to

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