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Next steps on downtown homelessness in Portland

Photo by Israel Bayer

The past two weeks have been chock full of tragic events, bad press and anxiety on the streets, specifically downtown.

A group of kids, presumably homeless, attacked a 70-year old employee of the Portland Outdoor Store downtown. He was hospitalized after a blow to the head. This comes after months of frustration and advocacy by the business community to do something about the street kids downtown.

"We need enforcement. We need to be able to send a message that this kind of behavior is not acceptable in our city," Megan Doern, a spokeswoman for the Portland Business Alliance recently told the Oregonian.

She’s right. It is unacceptable. Violence shouldn’t be tolerated.

On Friday, Mayor Charlie Hales and the police bureau moved to sweep campers in front of city hall. The camp has become disorganized in many ways and it’s unclear to the public what exactly the group is protesting.

A column in the Oregonian last week by Steve Duin shredded the groups credibility, if there was any, after claiming that heroin was being used by the campers. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that some of those campers should be connected to services before being scattered throughout the city.

It’s also worth noting that the small sliver of sidewalk in front of city hall has become a symbol of free speech for anti-war protestors, environmentalists, homeless advocates and the Occupy Portland movement over the past decade. I would never wager to guess what the actual long-term outcome might be for the sidewalk in front of city hall.

Also lingering are next steps on Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2), the tent city that has been operating for nearly two years in downtown. A judge will soon rule if the camp owes the city thousands of dollars in money. The outcome may have an impact on what the next steps are for R2D2.

Regardless of the outcome of the court case, to ignore R2D2 would be foolish. Scattering 80 individuals and families throughout downtown would be shortsighted.

My guess is the mayor and R2D2 understand this dynamic clearly. They also understand they can’t stay at their current location forever. I’m hopeful something will be worked out.

Having said all of that, there is no perfect time politically for city hall to make a move on issues like camping, sidewalks and panhandling. With the wave of bad press, a fuming business community and so much uncertainty in the air, it appears now is as good as time as any.

Let’s back up for a minute.

No mayor runs for office with the hopes of having to deal with thousands of people sleeping on the streets — especially in a thriving city like Portland. But the crisis of homelessness, as it relates to public safety, neighborhood livability and the lack of housing is exactly what a mayor inherits.

The mayor isn’t alone. The same debate about what to do about homelessness and the housing shortage is happening all across America.

Knowing this, you shouldn’t be surprised to know that most urban environments have tent cities, a massive shortage of affordable housing and a public discourse on a range of issues related to people on the streets, including things like camping and panhandling.

The message that Portland is too easy on the homeless and/or offers to many services that attract people on the streets is a message being delivered to every mayor across the United States by business and tourism associations. It’s an old hat.

The idea that homeless people are hurting the local business climate and tourism in Portland is utter nonsense. Is it uncomfortable or unfortunate, tragic even? Yes. Is it actually stopping people from visiting or moving to Portland? No.

Downtown, the Pearl, South Waterfront and neighborhoods surrounding the urban core are thriving. These bustling neighborhoods are so successful in fact that most working class individuals and families have been completely priced out of the rental market. We have a growing equity gap both economically and racially in our city’s core. That’s a problem.

Blaming the homeless and panhandling for a poor business climate on the heels of a recession, even in the midst of a vibrant and growing downtown, is reactionary and dogmatic. It lacks any kind of real vision.

It’s very hard to understand the issue of homelessness and all its complexities in a vacuum. When bad things happen on the streets, everyone ranging from the general pubic, to special interest groups, political insiders and the media has an opinion on what to do about the problem. Rarely do those opinions address the big picture.

The big picture  

 The federal government’s disinvestment in housing over the past three decades is well documented. Local city, county and state governments have been forced to carry the burden on how to end individuals and families homelessness.

Without real leadership and support from government and the private sector, we can’t even begin to think about actually changing the climate of people experiencing homelessness in downtown environments.

It should also be the responsibility of the media to point out the lack of resources and barriers we face as a community, while spending more time highlighting solutions.

For years, Portland and Multnomah County have been battered by the economy when it comes to resources to address poverty. In some ways, local governments have found a way to hold a line on its investments, but that’s not nearly enough.

Those investments have rarely increased and there still isn’t a clear strategy on long-term resource development for housing. That’s a big problem.

There’s always talk of lobbying our representatives in Washington D.C. for relief, but it never amounts to much. Salem could prioritize housing around the state, but I’m not holding my breath. Local communities have more or less been left on their own to solve the problem of homelessness.

Some believe we need stricter sidewalk laws and more targeted enforcement. If that’s the case, then we also need things like more mental health outreach workers, police officers who are walking the beat and a strategic plan to offer our most vulnerable residents downtown housing. It’s been proven time and again, you can’t simply criminalize the homeless and have any real effect on the problem.

The argument then comes back that Portland doesn’t want to criminalize the homeless, but they want to target certain behaviors, like harassment and violence. I couldn’t agree more. So let’s do that.

Clearly, we should have targeted enforcement against street violence, regardless of an individual's housing status. People on the streets would welcome this as much as anyone else. Violent crimes against the homeless are very real and sometimes deadly.

We need officers downtown that have the resources to tackle street crime, and we need an array of services and housing for the majority of individuals and families experiencing homelessness who aren't committing crimes. 

The issue of downtown homelessness is bigger than any isolated incident of violence, or how panhandlers might annoy certain segments of the population. It’s bigger than a camp being swept in front of City Hall, or under a nearby bridge. It doesn’t matter how many homeless camps or sidewalks you sweep, people are still going to be homeless.

We need more innovative ways of addressing street homelessness coupled with more resources to get the job done. Stricter sidewalk laws or targeting panhandlers simply doesn’t get us there.

What to do?

Will there be a stricter sidewalk law proposed? Will the city risk lawsuits from civil liberties groups and push forward with targeting panhandlers? Will there be a more aggressive approach to sweeping camps? Possibly the mayor won’t go in any of these directions and will decide on a harm reduction approach.

It’s anyone guess on what happens next.

The following list offers a prescription to ease the pain downtown:

  •  $1 million dollars for rent assistance to target hard to reach populations, including homeless families and youth downtown.
  •  Additional outreach workers to support JOIN and Janus Youth to provide harm reduction approaches to working with people in camps and on sidewalks.
  •  Additional mental health outreach workers and housing vouchers to target people experiencing mental health on the streets downtown.
  •  A committee to look strategically at increased, on-going revenue to support housing and homeless services in Multnomah County.
  • Providing resources for two to four police officers to walk the beat in the cities central core to develop relationships and to target/detour violent or harassing behaviors.
  •  Create an organized and central line of communication between police officers, private security, park rangers, outreach workers and local businesses experiencing problems downtown.

The list above might not be the only answers, but it’s a start. Without an aggressive strategy to actually solve the problem, we’re simply spinning our wheels and moving from one incident to the next.

For seasoned advocates, people experiencing homelessness, law enforcement and local businesses — we understand this problem isn’t going away anytime soon and someone needs to take the bull by the horns.

There’s no better time than the present.