“We joined the Old Town Community 90-Day plan to provide additional janitorial and public safety services through our excellent contracted staff to improve livability conditions for Old Town. We are very grateful and proud of our staff for their continued dedication and service in these roles, working hard in changing, uncertain and sometimes dangerous conditions.
As we all know, Old Town, and Downtown, have some very particular circumstances. In Old Town we have a high density of tents and unsheltered community members living amongst some of our smaller and culturally specific businesses, in a relatively small area, prominently, on numerous public rights of way.
In Old Town many problems coalesce to create an unsustainable environment where violence, unsafe and inhumane conditions persist, and business continuity is increasingly unattainable. It is within this environment where collectively we are endeavoring to improve conditions for all.
In the last 45 days we have cleaned more graffiti, picked up trash and litter day in and day out, we have worked with the City’s Impact Reduction Program to see tents relocate from one street to another. The overall reduction in tents in Old Town is currently about 15% and varies almost daily as tents relocate within and outside of Old Town, across to the Pearl and Downtown.
The reality we face in the 90-Day Plan is that as we do this work, we find ourselves mobilizing resources to provide short-term solutions to long-term problems. We are not addressing the root cause of the challenges we face, challenges we face not just in Old Town, but throughout the entire City. Our community problems are very graphic. They are visible to all in many parts of the City, not just seen, but heard and felt in the heart as we experience violence and community trauma.
I share an example: many of our businesses, small and large, have property in Old Town. Many have seen businesses leave, have vacant property, and tent structures around various sides of their buildings on a constant basis. Trash, needles, biohazards are persistently present. We visited a location on Friday for assessment for trash, . And over the weekend Clean and Safe janitorial staff worked respectfully around the tents to pick up 150 bags of trash. I visited the area again on Tuesday this week. It looked cleaner, yet the tents remain. And for the property owner, finding a business to lease the building remains frustratingly unattainable.
On my walk back through Old Town, right here at the back of Lan Su, I bumped into the 2800 Bike Unit, who were responding with other PPB Officers, to a dead body found in one of the many tents behind us. A suspected overdose. This gentleman’s life prematurely ended. Here on our streets.
My background includes humanitarian aid in several countries and diverse environments. I can say with certainty living conditions in refugee and displaced person camps are drastically better than what we see on our streets and in our neighborhoods.
To navigate a path towards long-term solutions for our long-term problems, we must look back upstream to what decision have we made.
Here in Portland, we must look at our decisions. Decisions that have created or contributed to the conditions within which we are struggling with short-term solutions to long-term problems.
We have two major challenges as a City that are shaping the political narrative as we look to – and support our elected and aspiring-to-be-elected public officials:
- Camping and the experience of the unsheltered community living outside.
- Public Safety
As we look at long-term solutions, we must better understand the characteristics of our displaced community on the streets. From my experience in this role, and in previous roles with the City of Portland, it seems there are different sub-groups that require different solutions:
One group of our unsheltered neighbors could be characterized as folks who have come upon difficult times, loss of job, economic hardship, unaffordability of and difficulty of access to housing. This group is most responsive to the opportunity for connection to resources. Housing. Employment. Mental Health Care. Shelter. many of us have helped people transition to opportunities to move off the streets. Many of our social services agencies do excellent work in this arena. And we too, as part of our contract with the City, will be launching a Community Health Outreach Worker Program to add more resources for the purposes of helping people experiencing houselessness, experiencing a mental health situation or addiction situation, connect to resources where possible. Through compassionate outreach, some voluntarily respond to the opportunity for change, for help, to decide and choose a different path.
We commend the expansion of Portland Street Response to provide more resources in this arena. We also recognize the challenges of this service being deployed through an understaffed 911 call system that needs reinvestment to increase staffing and support. Portland Street Response works in situations where violence is not present, and where beneficiaries of services will voluntarily accept help.
We commend the creation of the Street Services Coordination Center, where shelter and other resources for unsheltered community members are coordinated, updated, and made available for our First Responder organizations to access to connect people they encounter who voluntarily choose to access these opportunities and services.
We commend the Problem-Solving meetings providing a regular forum stimulating discussion and realistic dialogue led by the Mayor’s office staff.
Another group could be characterized as members of our unsheltered community who do not have the capacity to voluntarily choose help. We see people suffering, struggling to meet basic needs and care for themselves either due to significant mental health crisis or illness, or severe drug addiction, and perhaps a combination of both. These are people who do not currently have the internal resources, or a decision-making mechanism to choose help, access resources, access opportunities. There are very limited options for response:
- Police Officer Hold – when a person is a danger to themselves or to another person and is temporary in nature.
- Civil Commitment – a rare and long complicated judicial process whereby a person experiencing mental health crisis, subject to a judge deciding whether a person is alleged to have mental health illness, should be required to accept mental health treatment, due to being a danger to themselves or others, and is unable to provide for basic personal needs like health and safety
- Or option 3 – we do nothing. We respect a person’s right to live in affliction, and we watch as a human being languishes in inhumane conditions until the point where crisis happens, to them or someone else. I wonder if the gentleman who died in the tent behind us this week was just left to live in affliction. It is very sad. This young man was someone’s son, someone’s friend, someone’s family. He could have been one of ours.
If we listen to the experience of victims of personal, property and violent crimes, both within the unsheltered community and the community within which our unsheltered community members live, there are those who prey on both the housed and unsheltered for criminal intent. Businesses, residents of Old Town experience and witness this day and day out. We know that drug addiction and houselessness have intersections at many levels, including usage, selling, and associated behaviors around illegal drugs that impact businesses and community members, to sustain an addiction that can be very difficult to experience freedom from. Lawlessness and violence have become the norm. We vacillate between the horror of it and the desensitization of it, until we see it, or experience it firsthand and face to face. An increasingly if not daily occurrence.
To address these issues requires a law enforcement approach. Yet we live in a City where many of us hitched our wagon to the disinvest in law enforcement narrative, and we are living with an understaffed, under-resourced, over-worked, un-appreciated police bureau that struggles to meet basic staffing needs, and go from call to call to call, where necessity drives direction to the most severe crisis events first, leaving many people on hold.
Of course, we must always be about reform. We must always be about accountability, adaption, and change. But we cannot reform something we do not have. We need community based public safety programs to work hand in hand with law enforcement, but we cannot cut one leg off the Police Bureau by taking away resources and ask them to run toward the future of the policing we feel we want to reach towards. That is not reasonable. That is not fair.
We must look at the decisions we have collectively made.
As we look at the intersection of drug use, drug addiction, and drug activities: Measure 110 – has this been a net positive or net negative outcome? Walk around Old Town and other areas on any day and ask this question. Did it achieve what it intended to achieve? While it increased funding for drug addiction services, so has drug usage increased through permissibility, and the associated behaviors and challenges around that in our communities. Access to treatment is now predominantly voluntary, with reduced accountability.
Disinvest in the Police Narrative – has this been a net positive or net negative decision? What are the outcomes. What is our community experiencing?
We also witnessed the disintegration of the City’s community-based crime prevention programs, including the support and infrastructure for the annual National Night Out that saw over 300 community-based street parties celebrated in the summer throughout the City. I remember the first one I went to as a Crime Prevention Program Administrator in 2019. It was at the Rosewood Initiative in East Portland, attended by perhaps two thousand throughout the day, people of many nationalities, one of the most diverse events that celebrated multinational community I have ever been to.
I heard someone say just the other day, that reasonable moderation is much harder place to sit in. Rather then be swayed by aspirations of one extreme to the other, it requires listening, it requires understanding all perspectives, it requires thoughtful expression of options and chartering a path that is specific, reasonable, time bound, measurable, honest, transparent.
At Downtown Portland Clean and Safe, we will keep doing what we are doing to manage the current status quo and improve what we can control. To do the best we can. To serve the people who live, work, and visit the Clean and Safe district. But we need courage.
We need to come together and design and develop a 5-to-10-year plan to review, undo, redo, revisit, improve on some of the decisions we have collectively made to rebuild and reinvest in Public Safety from top to bottom. From government to community. And to improve livability.
We must also deeply look at the appropriate responses to the diverse characteristics that make up our houseless unsheltered community, including support for people we leave to languish in affliction unable to care for their basic needs and are a harm to self, due to mental health or drug addiction, and for accountability for those intent on opportunistic crime, that the data suggests increases at the juncture where unsheltered and housed communities live.
We must develop a regulatory framework, that is legal, with the resources to implement, to address the two core issues facing our City, to allow us to compassionately restore Portland to a livable, thriving, city filled with opportunity for all.