At a recent Portland Business Alliance breakfast meeting, the departing President Sandra McDonough said one thing she was looking forward to about retiring was going to dinner parties and not having the first question asked of her always be 'Why don't they do something about homelessness?'
The panelists spent a good deal of the time listing what they have done to decrease homelessness (see sidebar) but all agreed there was much more work to be done.
Of the top three concerns of Portland voters, in a survey by DHM Research six months ago, homelessness was at the top of the list. (Housing affordability and traffic congestion were next.)
The 2017 point in time count showed that 4,177 people were homeless in Multnomah County, half in shelters, half unsheltered (sleeping rough).
McDonough said the issue had moved on from dealing with homeless people on sidewalks to learning how people got there and dealing with them with compassion. The PBA has a homeless-to-work program with Central City Concern.
"I get more calls about this than anything else," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said at the PBA forum breakfast, talking about trash. He had just told an anecdote about how he pedaled behind a pickup truck driver who had thrown a coffee cup on Fifth Avenue. The mayor picked it up and threw it in the bed of the driver's truck. "Because when people see trash all over the place it gives them a sense that we don't control the environment in which we live."
The issue of homeless people seems to be more about mess than the threat of violence or harassment. From the bicycle chop shops that have grown up in tarp and tent cities, to the shopping cart trains tied up beside bedrolls, to the trash cans emptied out as people search for cans and bottles for the dime deposit, the antisocial effects vary in their scale and the effect they have.
"When people drive in and see all the trash on I-84, and people are blocking the right of way, which is illegal by the way, they call us. But we have no jurisdiction, that's ODOT, and they don't have the resources." Wheeler was talking about the joint agreement that lets PBOT, ODOT, the Parks, Sherriff and TriMet work together. Trash is the trigger for many people, which he calls "litter, needles and biohazards."
He said that last year Dowtown Clean & Safe removed 13,000 bags of trash, 27,000 intravenous drug user needles and 2,000 biohazards.
Matias Gonzalez, a sales associate at UnderU4Men, says "Clean & Safe has been super useful in taking care of the bodily mess left behind by homeless people camping around downtown, a wide variety and range of fluids I'd rather not discuss."
He said they're also good at deescalating confrontations.
"I'm sure it affects business. We'll show up and have to move two or three people sleeping around the door." But Gonzalez thinks people don't avoid coming downtown because of the homeless population. "People just don't have a lot to do downtown."
Kate Bolling, the owner of Oregon Wines on Broadway, sees plenty of street activity from her wine bar.
"I think what's going on right now in Portland with people on sidewalks and camping is definitely not good for business," she says. "I hear people say they don't want to stay downtown after work, and I hear tourists expressing concern, like it's dangerous. I haven't encountered anything that is dangerous, but at some point, you never know."
Bolling sees people asleep in doorways in the morning, although her arcade is cleared out because it has a security guard that sweeps it twice a night.
She finds Downtown Clean & Safe to be a good resource if she can't manage a problem herself.
In Lair Hill near her home, there's a camp site by the I-405 Lake Oswego exit. A few weeks ago, she saw a fire there which she assumed was started by the people with the grill between their tents.
A tent camp she noticed near Oak Street has now disappeared. "They're there until someone forces them to move along."
"Other cities have homeless people, but I've had visitors from New York say Portland has more homeless people than downtown Manhattan."
Clean & Sober
On a recent weekday pushing a mobile trash can armed with a picker-up-stick, graffiti solvent and a scraper for removing stickers, Hunter Yuille was an example of the city's attempts to get people off the streets and into work. It was his second day on the job picking up litter for Clean & Safe (the Clean part). He got the job through Central City Concern.
"We run around downtown, clean up the streets and making sure it's a living place." Yuille grew up in around 82nd Avenue in Montavilla, but got into drugs as a teen.
"I grew up in a house with money, and I speared off on a different path."
He has been clean and sober for nine months, but he used to live downtown in doorways around Burnside and Couch streets.
"I was usually strung out on methamphetamine and cocaine." (His longest jag was 14 days without sleep. What was he doing? "A lot of things I shouldn't have been doing. Illegal things. I had to be awake at all times.")
Yuille decided to get his life on track. "You don't get withdrawal from meth. You just sleep for a week."
He now talks to homeless people as he makes his rounds. "A lot of people downtown give them the cold shoulder, but what are they going to learn from that? I know what they're going through. I'll ask them how their day's going. Something like that can change their personality. When I was homeless I appreciated hearing someone actually say Hi to me, because no one ever paid attention."
He never begged because he always had a hustle. "I learned from a young age to work for money. I had a good work ethic. I turned 15 and my dad told me I'm SOL and had to work for my money. I worked at Ross, Burgerville and Burger King." He's on a six-month program, with a chance to get into a permanent position. "Central City Concern has a whole list of jobs."
Laman Bader is a student and a parking lot attendant by the Alder Street food carts downtown. He sees homeless people sleeping in doorways on his walk to work, but they are not allowed in the lot. They don't bother him. "Tourists keep saying we have a lot. I guess we do. Not too much though. I assume New York has more."
Penny Kelly is the manager at Kassab Jewelers on Broadway, where she has worked for 11 years. She has a picture window view of the corner of Broadway and Southwest Alder Street.
She's been trying to get a bench and solar compactor trash can removed from outside her store for months. People sleep on the bench or drink on it, and the trash can overflows because the door breaks and it is on a different emptying schedule than usual. She says Clean & Safe will clean it up as a favor. "Clean & Safe guys are good. They're here for us.
"The homeless come and they break the lock and the garbage is overflowing." Kelly recently had a guy outside drinking in a wheelchair who had soiled himself, and Clean & Safe came and cleaned the sidewalk.
"We want this to be nice so people aren't afraid to come downtown. I think they see the mess and they don't want to come downtown."
Her colleague added that most of Kassab's clients now don't live in Portland — they're tourists from Washington and California taking advantage of the lack of sales tax. "Homeless, parking, construction: three reasons they won't come downtown."
Kelly says the homeless people don't really bother her customers in any other way, apart from perhaps some "yelling and screaming," he says of the locals.
"Most of them are harmless. When it gets hot, they come in for the air conditioning. We're nice to them because we don't want conflict with anyone. We've only had to get upset maybe twice in the 11 years I've been here. Clean & Safe are really nice guys, but they need help. Dog poop. Human feces. They clean it up. They come as soon as we call them."
New Clean & Safe leader
Eric Murfitt, manager of the women's clothing store Mercantile downtown, is the new chair of Downtown Clean & Safe. It provides on-call cleaners and security guards for when calls to 911 would not be helpful. Building owners downtown are assessed based on the size of their building and charges are passed on to the tenants in the form of rent. (The budget also funds four full time police officers for downtown.)
"If someone threw up on the sidewalk, or there's a man yelling obscenities, a live person answers and dispatches someone."
"We get reports on wait times, number of needles collected etc. The data is helpful when talking with constituents."
Murfitt said O'Bryant Square (now closed) and Ankeny Park were two hot spots for homeless people sleeping and hanging out.
"I don't think we see tents downtown, except maybe Waterfront or under a bridge, but we're not really seeing that any more. When I come downtown in the morning I see people in doorways."
Portland born and bred, Murfitt has worked downtown for 20 years and has seen some homeless characters for almost as long. There's a guy with a sleeping bag he has seen for at least 15 years.
"If they're not sleeping they're asking for money. There's a contingent outside Target, and another by the food carts."
He says he doesn't get harassed very often at all, but knows his female employees sometimes feel more threatened than he does by the same behavior.
Murfitt feels Clean & Safe is handling things well, given the circumstances.
"The problem is way upstream, we have a crisis of not dealing with mental health in this country. There's the cheapness of highly addictive opiates. Certainly, I've heard in the news, the cleaners tell us how their life's changed, working with us. They started with opiates from the doctor and moved on to heroin."
In 20 years he's only ever seen an open drug deal once.
For downtown businesses, the problem remains: homelessness is partly in the mind of the consumer. If someone can stream a movie on their 70-inch TV, order gourmet take-out and do their shopping from their easy chair, it doesn't take much to put them off the journey. Coming downtown has to be hassle-free to entice them from the suburbs.
Portland Business Alliance support
The PBA supported Mayor Wheeler's proposed increase of the city's Business License Tax to 2.6 percent, which was approved on June 13. Wheeler said the general fund dollars will be used in a number of ways, including:Funding a community health care manager at the Portland Fire Bureau, who can monitor frequent callers and connect them with services
n Hiring a homeless liaison at the Portland Police Bureau and creating two new behavioral response teams that pair officers with mental health clinicians.
— Zane Sparling for Pamplin Media Group
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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