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Homeless sweeps and extra policing have reduced crime and craziness on the streets of Old Town, but activists admit it's early days.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler spoke outside the Lan Su Chinese Garden in Old Town Monday June 13, to praise the recent camp cleanups. Wheeler warned that many homelss people have just moved a few blocks south and west.

Up 456%.

That's the increase in the number of camp removals (206) from Portland's Old Town Chinatown neighborhood in May 2022, compared to May in 2021. So said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler Monday morning, June 13, as he gathered with Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell and Jessie Burke, owner of The Society Hotel and chair of Old Town Community Association. They were there to tout the success of the 90-Day Reset Plan to address State of Violence and Safety in the neighborhood, which has seen some of the longest-lasting camps, most concentrated gun violence and lowest foot traffic of any part of the city since the pandemic began.

PMG - Housing issues.

The press conference was held outside the Lan Su Chinese Gardens, where a sidewalk strip of tents has been cleared by Echelon Security in the last year.

Wheeler said 137 encampments (defined as one or more tents) were removed in April 2022, which is up 300% from the same month in 2021. He revealed that everyone swept out of Old Town was offered shelter space, but that many had moved to the downtown core and the Pearl District.

PMG PHOTO JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (second left) and Portland police chief Chuck Lovell (arms folded) listen as Jessie Burke, owner of The Society Hotel and chair of Old Town Community Association, reports on the 90 day plan to Zero Tents in Old Town.

In a release, the Old Town Community Association stated: "Within the last 45 days, the city of Portland opened two new shelters and has dedicated a total of 92 beds to the Street Services Coordination Center to directly assist community members experiencing houselessness. The City's Street Service Coordination teams connect with people living on the streets and provide referrals for shelter beds at the center. Already, the referral process is filling over 40 beds."

But Burke admitted crime is still rising in Old Town.

"Before the city of Portland created new shelter beds for Old Town, what we saw every day were two distinct groups within our houseless community — the actually vulnerable and those preying on the vulnerable — and it became difficult to differentiate between the two," said Burke. "While we have not helped everyone, there are fewer vulnerable houseless individuals to prey on. As such, the predator is now preying on other vulnerable members of the community, including older adults and people with disabilities, many of whom live in subsidized housing in our neighborhood."

She called on the Portland Police Bureau, as well as the Multnomah County District Attorney and sheriffs to work more closely together as a public safety team.

Burke roasted her critics.

"There are some people who will spend most of their time discrediting any attempt at solving a problem … or who will oversimplify complex issues and boil them down to mind-boggling false equivalencies. This is not advocacy. This is apathy."

Wheeler spoke of the recent success of the city of Portland's Street Services Coordination Center. He said the old practice is over of giving homeless people bus tickets and asking them to move their belongings on their own.

"Those we made contact with, were offered a shelter bed available immediately, transportation and storing their belongings."

Wheeler said the Street Services Coordination Center has developed an app to track each intervention and service offered and received. He promised the data would be shared online with the public. He thanked the county in the form of Chair Deborah Kafoury and the Joint Office of Homeless Services for making 92 shelter beds available.

"I am proud to say we are turning the tide," Wheeler concluded.

Burke said the clearing of tents was because of "greater cooperation and urgency from the city and county, despite a lack of coordination from some nonprofit providers in the area," although she did not name those nonprofits.

During the speeches, an unkempt man made a family of tourists hasten its movements by yelling at them as he walked down the middle of the street, and afterward a local, known to the head of Echelon Security, stopped his truck to shout insults at Mayor Wheeler.

Wheeler said people are extremely skeptical of elected officials right now and didn't expect people to pay attention to him making a "rah-rah speech," but he did think they would listen to local business people saying things are changing. Burke added that business owners have stepped up and now it is up to Portlanders to visit Old Town if they want to see it flourish.

"If you care to save your city, show up."

When asked why the cleanup took so long, Wheeler said he had done what he could by emergency order, but the bulk of the money took two years to arrive from federal and county sources and to his budget.

Police Chief Lovell said the names of four people who have died by homicide in the past year, and said two people have been arrested while two of the cases remain wide open: Jaquan Jamaul Jenkins, James "Tony" Wise, Jennifer Drain and Fars Gebrehiwot. Lovell thanked a string of people, including PPB's bicycle officers, who are on the front lines dealing with crime and mental crises. He described a collaboration in which a 66-year-old medically fragile female was saved from the streets. He said a police officer linked up with Portland Fire and Portland Street Response to get her to the hospital, on the way to securing her supportive housing.

Lovell said between March 22 and May 20, reported drug offenses were down 51%, trespassing reports were down 93% and vandalism reports were down 13% on the preceding 60-day period.

Burke said she has been testifying at meetings for seven years to have the city deal with the encampments and street crime, and seemed pleased with the results of the 90-day plan, which called for "zero tents" in Old Town.

Kamelah Adams, owner of Mimi's Fresh Tees, said she moved her business to Old Town (above Old Town Pizza) a year ago and used to feel unsafe. Recently a woman who was living across the street moved on, and Adams learned the woman had found an apartment.

Burke told the Portland Tribune that Old Town has other problems stopping it from becoming a flourishing destination. She said her husband is a developer and understands the Old Town property market. Many storefronts are blank and buildings are empty because they are made of unreinforced masonry, and owners do not want to pay for the structural steel reinforcement to make them inhabitable under seismic building code.

"We have three (property-related) tragedies in Old Town. One is unreinforced masonry that they don't know how to develop. Two is we have a few property owners who are in conflict and won't lease their space — maybe they're in probate. The third is we have pretty good property owners who don't want to lower their rents to market rate here. It changes. They want $28 to $32 per square foot. That's not anywhere any more. Truly, market in Old Town is $12 to $15 a foot." She wants them to lease or sell right now, rather than leave the buildings empty.

"Prosper Portland has funded the Old Town Community Association for someone to help us recruit businesses to Old Town, and to help navigate property owners who are being difficult." She said the person has been hired but it is slow going. "It's hard work … it's very high touch. It's like case management," Burke said, comparing it to getting homeless people through bureaucracy and into housing.


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