Opinion: We must restore our city, and become the new Eden
Portland has been home most of my life. Our family moved here when I was 10. At 18, I joined the Burnside Community Council board, kicking off a life in social services and ministry that has covered three decades and six Portland mayors.
All these years, I've been in a lover's quarrel with Portland, demanding more housing and attention to civil rights to make Portland a better home for all.
At 52, like many Portlanders, I'm dismayed where we are as a city and wondering if Portland, with all the Rose City has to offer, will become the new Eden, or are we on a path to becoming the new Gotham. You might be surprised to learn I'm still hopeful about our future.
Real hope is not blind, however. Portland has significant problems. Going back to the 1980s, when Portland began to experience a growing homelessness crisis, advocates pleaded with city leaders to better address the need for affordable housing and supportive services. In 1984, Bud Clark successfully ran for Portland mayor on a platform that mirrored what advocates called for. Clark's administration made progress, but his effort faltered with the passage of the property tax-reducing Ballot Measure 5, which cut needed funding, and opposition from business leaders.
In the intervening years, homelessness grew. When a shelter would close, or when leaders like Mayor Vera Katz opposed proposals to increase housing, advocates would warn that inattention to these issues would leave the city with people sleeping outside on sidewalks and in camps in growing numbers.
More and more Portlanders have come to recognize that homelessness will never end without more public funding. Along with the voting public, political and business leaders deserve praise for investing more than ever in housing and services. We see now in Portland, with tents across the city, both the result of growing economic inequity on a national level and a failure to act decades ago.
The crisis of civil rights, along with the related issue of police accountability, has been an equally longstanding issue that intersects with the issue of homelessness. Albina Ministerial Alliance, led by area clergy and other advocates, has long pressed for Portland to address civil rights. But Portland leaders have resisted or proven ill-equipped to take on the powerful police union, the Portland Police Association, which has a long and ugly history of racism and obstructionism.
As a minister in the United Church of Christ and a one-time professor of religion at Pacific University, I've spent a lot of time studying the Hebrew scriptures (or Christian Old Testament). A common misconception is that the God of the Hebrew scriptures is angry and vengeful. A closer read of the text shows a God who loves God's people and who, time and time again, warns Israel that if attention is not paid to creating a society based on justice, that society will look something like Portland in 2021.
When people say they are upset with all the camps and garbage, and street protests that sometimes dissolve into anarchy, I think, me too. Who isn't? But our response cannot be to criminalize homelessness or tear gas protesters demanding civil rights. We are dealing with human rights issues. It is through a human rights lens that we must address these issues.
In the past year, with the pandemic raging and the unprecedented assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, the United States' social fabric has been ripped apart. This is important to note, if only because what happens nationally impacts Portland. The homelessness crisis would never have emerged in the 1980s if the federal government had not dramatically cut affordable housing funding. Local leaders are responsible for acting on issues, but not all problems can be solved without federal support.
President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan moves the nation in the right direction, but what comes next?
I urge all Portlanders to support every effort to address homelessness: with your vote, with your voice, with your money and with your time as a volunteer. Agencies working to end homelessness, like Outside In and Transition Projects, need us.
While Metro and government agencies need to do more to deal with garbage, SOLVE needs volunteers to clean up our neighborhoods.
With the same vigor, Portlanders should support all efforts to address racism. The Reimagine Oregon platform provides a blueprint for moving forward.
What we cannot do is allow the nearly all-white anarchists who protest under the banner of Black Lives Matter to continue their vandalism. Among the businesses that have had their windows bashed and operations halted are both Black-owned and immigrant-owned shops. Anarchy stands in direct opposition to democracy, and democracy, imperfect as it is, is still the best vehicle for addressing social inequities.
Why hold on to hope amid all these challenges? Look at the leaders who have emerged in recent years. Voters in the Portland-area have placed their trust in people like Shemia Fagan, Jo Ann Hardesty, Mohamed Alyajouri, Juan Carlos González and Khanh Pham.
These elected leaders are joined by activists such as Salomé Chimuku, Cameron Whitten and Elona Wilson.
What these leading lights have in common is a passion for justice, a belief in the common good and the lived experience to demand progressive policies that make Portland and Oregon work for everyone, not just the powerful.
These leaders and all the young people demanding change in our streets and at the ballot box provide mountains of hope.
Scripture tells us: "… if you offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in." (Isaiah 58:10,12 NRSV)
It is time for all Portlanders to become restorers of the streets to live in. Portland might never become the new Eden, but we do not have to become the new Gotham.
We have a choice. We always have.
The Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie of Northeast Portland is a minister in the United Church of Christ. He holds a doctor of ministry degree from the Chicago Theological Seminary and a master of divinity degree from Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis.
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