Civil Discourse - Gresham kicks off wave of town hall meetings
Gun violence is affecting every neighborhood across Gresham, and a city councilor knows first-hand the pain it can bring a family.
Councilor Vincent Jones-Dixon lost his brother, Andreas Prince Jones, to a gang-related shooting in 2013 at the Rockwood Station Apartments near 190th and Yamhill. Just days before the murder, his brother had reached out to Jones-Dixon, saying the kids in Rockwood "needed something different."
That loss spurred Jones-Dixon into public service — first as an advocate for the Rockwood CDC, and later as the first Black man to hold a seat on Gresham City Council.
"I've experienced my share of loss," he said. "But I've learned we can go further and faster together."
Gun violence, homelessness, parks and recreation, funding, and more were all in the spotlight Thursday evening, Sept. 8, as East Hill Church, 701 N. Main Avenue, hosted the first in what will be a series of town hall meetings in every corner of the city.
"We heard that people want us to come to them, rather than always have them show up at City Hall," said Gresham City Manager Nina Vetter. "COVID created disconnection, and the environment we operate in tends to be divisive and accusatory."
"This is the first opportunity to begin working together," she added.
The town hall had a panel of Councilor Jones-Dixon, Vetter, and East Hill Pastor Keith Jenkins serving as moderator.
"I was 'volun-told' by my wife that I would be moderating tonight," Jenkins said with a laugh.
After a short preamble, the gathering was turned over to the several hundred attendees, both congregates of East Hill and neighbors, to ask questions and share concerns with the city leaders.
From the beginning the leaders of East Hill wanted to ensure the meeting remained positive and focused.
"There is not a day my wife and I don't disagree over something," Jenkins said of his 34 years married to co-Pastor Coco Jenkins. "We had to start listening for understanding and not just agreement. There is this idea that if I don't agree with your position, then you become an enemy."
"We aren't advocating for any specific political strategies, but we need to start engaging these problems as participants and not spectators," he added.
Gresham is facing a police officer shortage — the city is down 17 sworn positions — and funding woes for both police and fire. While all of that has been brewing for the past decade, a burst of violence has swept across the entire region the past two years. Through August, Gresham police had collected more than 1,000 bullet casings, including from two shootings that took place in downtown Gresham.
Many of the attendees asked what strategies are in place to improve safety. The panel discussed beefing up the youth services division, which has been leveraging community partners to provide more offerings for kids; the Behavioral Health Unit continues to send out clinicians to community members having breakdowns; and the city launched "Safe Gresham," a program that has hired back non-sworn positions to help with analysis.
What slows the police hiring process is that a new officer must go through the state academy, which takes 18 months. Thus, the idea of solutions beyond officers, like better safety infrastructure, "highly visible" cameras, and civilian safety roles.
"It takes the whole comprehensive approach to address violence and crime," Vetter said.
Council has earmarked more than $5 million in federal funding for both police and fire, but spoke about the need for more stable, long-term revenue streams. One solution could be a public safety levy, which has been shot down by voters twice in the past decades.
The panel also provided some clarifications around common misconceptions. There is a lot of concern in East Multnomah County about suspects being released without facing charges, which falls on the District Attorney's Office, not the Gresham Police Department. That isn't to say it's being ignored locally — the police have been connecting with the DA to figure out what all is needed during arrests to ensure charges can stick.
What the city is doing around homelessness was another topic. The panel touted the work being done by the Homeless Services Division, which contacts chronic homeless across East Multnomah County to connect them with resources and ultimately move them into stable housing. The city is also developing affordable housing across the spectrum — apartments, single-family, multi-family homes.
"Getting everyone housed is one of council's top priorities," Vetter said. "If you see a tent or someone putting up a structure that is against code, call us immediately."
The city preached a firm, yet compassionate approach, an idea supported by Pastor Jenkins, who dealt with homelessness while leading a church in downtown Los Angeles.
"We have to have compassion and love, while also having law and order to make sure everyone is safe," he said. "Businesses have to be able to function."
Both Pastor Jenkins and Councilor Jones-Dixon were asked about race during the meeting, especially as Black men living in the wake of the George Floyd murder and the civil marches. Both said they have faced microaggressions and racism in the communities they have lived.
"I am a Black man who lives in America, I am not ignorant to our history," Jenkins said. "I serve a church that doesn't look like me — yet I am willing to be a bridge to bring us together because we have more in common than disagreement."
Under both Pastor Keith and Coco's leadership, East Hill has been working to hire more candidates of color and create an inviting space for all sorts of people to worship.
"This is a journey that will never end, it will never be solved," he said. "But I am in the fight and battle daily to bring reconciliation in the community and church."
By the end of the town hall the main refrain was to get involved. Attend meetings, answer surveys, volunteer with community groups, and help make Gresham a better community together.
"We can't do this alone in city government," Vetter said. "Connect with people in the community with a different point of view, and work together to solve these problems."
There are several ways to connect with the city of Gresham:
• My Gresham App — report livability issues, overgrown bushes, homeless camps, illegally parked cars, potholes and more
• Social Media — Follow "City of Gresham" on all major platforms to get community updates
• Website — Visit GreshamOregon.gov to get business and community resources, file documents, connect with City Council
• Get involved — Champion Gresham is a new initiative that has signup opportunities to participate in roundtables, share ideas, collaborate with peers, and learn more about civic processes. Join at bit.ly/3eCchdT
Host a Town Hall
The city of Gresham does not want the evening at East Hill Church to be a one-off gathering.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.