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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
- $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.