Action Needed Now!
For many years, Old Town has been the major epicenter of the homelessness in Portland. With the current pandemic, the situation in Old Town has reached crisis proportions with countless tents lining the streets, mounds of trash creating unsanitary and health threatening conditions and with a significant upsurge in crime as criminals penetrate the homeless community and spread criminal activity into surrounding neighborhoods. A homeless outreach team has reported that young girls are being prostituted out of the tents as well as drug dealers encamped among the homeless. There is also a high number of people in mental crises walking around screaming, walking in the middle of the streets, doing things that are unsafe for them, and creating an environment that is chaotic and threatening to others. The survival of Old Town as a viable neighborhood is at stake and must be immediately addressed by our city and county leaders. We urge you as political leaders to act now without delay.
The Problem Now
An explosion of unsheltered population has come to the streets of Oldtown and more come every day. Tents, carts and trash are now taking over the sidewalks, streets and business entrances. Shelter in place and CDC guidelines are NOT being followed when you have large groups of people migrating from other neighborhoods into Old Town. This situation requires our City and County to look further into why people are making a major relocation and continue to do so. Are other quadrants of Portland not providing adequate social services? How do other areas plan to support these vulnerable people and bring them back to their neighborhoods? Will adding even more emergency shelters to Old town actually create a long term detrimental effect on this community and create a tipping point?
Are there other emergency shelters being created around our city that could alleviate the extra pressure placed on Old Town? We have heard of only two on the Eastside. This does not seem like enough shelter for such a vast area of the city. Why do emergency shelters placed now have to be so concentrated in Old Town? Old Town already has the most social service and non-profits, including Harbor of Hope, emergency COVID shelter on the waterfront and Block R underway. The Convention center is just over the steel bridge and again so close to Old Town.
Navigation teams are needed on the street working 24-7 helping these people get back into settings more capable of providing essential services, mental health, drug treatment and over all safety.
Public Health and Sanitary Conditions
Unacceptable and dangerously unsanitary conditions have emerged. The unsheltered population is utilizing the sidewalks, doorways and parking lots for restrooms, and piles of human feces are everywhere even though portable public restrooms and sanitation stations have been setup. This has created hazardous conditions for Clean and Safe programs and left residents themselves to deal with removing the biohazards and power washing sidewalks and entries. To hear that essential services like cleaning our streets are limited due to COVID concerns has missed the public safety mark for everyone. In addition to COVID concerns being overlooked, there is now at a higher risk of other communicable diseases from trash scattered everywhere, human feces, needles and bloody 2x4s from drug use. Drug dealing and use is out of control. Efforts are being made to create “safe streets” in public transportation in other neighborhoods by closing streets to allow for better social distancing, but in Old Town there are tent encampments everywhere, not even six feet apart, blocking doors and access for essential services. Businesses may not be able to open or survive due to this crisis, not COVID. The safety of people who live or work in this area is not being considered. Help is needed to get people off the street and into safer designated emergency areas or shelters that have openings.
Public Safety and Crime
Old Town is experiencing an influx of criminal activity affecting everyone, including the vulnerable homeless. Business windows are being busted out daily and need to be boarded up. This is especially hard for businesses trying to stay open. Boarded up windows and doors sends a message that they are closed. They have to struggle with PPP loans, unemployment, and loss of staff and customers. Now, they have to grapple with public safety and getting through their own front door. It is unacceptable that plywood is the only line of defense against criminal activities when there is limited access to justice, court, jails, and prosecutions. People are unable to walk safely down the streets due to increased violence, exhibited weapons carried by campers and blocked sidewalks and doorways. Most importantly, the unchecked mental health crises affects everyone. Multiple illegal campsites have caught on fire. Campers are threatening and harming each other. Residents and workers are scared and worry how this will impact opening their business after the mandate is lifted. Extra police patrols are needed to address the overall public safety needs. TriMet services along NW 5th avenue, Train Station and Max Line on the waterfront has been blocked by tents and hard for everyone to safely access. TriMet/PBOT must restore safe access to transportation.
Future Hardship for Old Town
This public health emergency has the potential of creating a hardship in Old Town from which it may not recover. Your help is needed to plan for the fall out of this crisis. We must preserve and protect what’s left of the historic Chinese and Japanese culture, small businesses, large businesses, and education institutions that all bring business and tourism to the neighborhood. In addition, businesses and residents need to feel that they don’t have to leave Old Town for safer areas. Lastly, the streets should never be considered a safer alternative for the unsheltered population. It’s evident in what is playing out.
Here’s What You Can Do
- Establish a walking beat Police presence and provide data reports to the public — * see below
- PPB human trafficking team to run missions in this area.
- PPB Street Crimes unit or NRT teams to run drug missions in this area.
- Portland Street Response. We need it now. If this pilot program does not make its debut now, it has missed the mark.
- TriMet public transportation access. We need a TriMet appointed worker to be dedicated to the needs of public transportation in Old Town. Access is blocked and COVID issues are not being addressed. Safe streets are needed here too! During the safe streets initiative being rolled out now across Portland… Old Town was overlooked entirely. Progress report to the public are needed.
- Businesses need an ordinance passed to restrict camping or personal items being placed at least 10 feet from a business door. Prohibit connecting a camp to a business door or wall.
- Need emphasis on Homeless/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP) and Clean and Safe Program. Camp and street cleaning must take place even during COVID restrictions. Hygiene is an essential need for all and prevents illness.
- A hardship fund should be created for businesses in Old Town unable to open their doors or provide services. If business are unable to get people into their business due to sidewalk camping, they are losing business and risk never reopening. Also, for businesses that experience acts of vandalism, burglaries, and property crime, the hardship will have a long term impact on public safety, tourism, future business and added strain on existing social services.
- Center the Navigation Team full time in Old Town/Chinatown. Provide periodic reports on progress.
- Cascade Behavioral Health needs a presence in Old Town. Provide periodic reports on progress on how many hours and people are dedicated to the Mental Health Crisis on the Street now.
- Public Health Department to survey the health sanitation concerns of Old Town. Also, revisit COVID concerns in this area that are not being followed. Provide two week reports.
- Establish a plan to relocate the “influx” of campers on Old Town Streets into safe emergency shelters and eventually back to the neighborhoods from which they originated. We need a census to understand the number of beds or platforms really available.
- Increase the prosecution of drug and human trafficking cases. Now is not the time to let the criminal take advantage of this crisis to cause more human suffering
- Determine what social services need to be strengthened in other areas of Portland that caused the unsheltered to migrate over to Old Town during COVID. – especially if a future COVID shelter in place becomes necessary. We need to learn from Old Town and make changes to other areas.
* Continued and Sustained Uniformed PPB Foot and Bike Patrols: While PPB has announced and implemented enhanced, visual police patrols for the OTCT , Pearl and other areas effective 05.13, this appears to be a reactionary step after significant increases in commercial burglary and related disorder calls for service. While greatly appreciating PPB’s on-going staffing challenges, conditions and livability standards have declined to a degree unacceptable to the residential and business community in these impacted areas. Sustained, uniform police presence must become the normal fabric of these communities to regain the community’s sense of safety, aid struggling businesses in opening and financial recovery, and allow for some type of a welcoming environment to the general public. PSAC strongly supports the enforcement of city ordinances and state criminal statutes. PSAC’s position is clear regarding the status of individuals experiencing homelessness- this is not a crime and apart from immediate welfare concerns, not an issue to be addressed by PPB. Any sanitation and public health concerns and conditions resulting from illegal camping should still be addressed in a timely and regular schedule by the appropriate City services.
Recommendation: If not already in place, solicit volunteers to serve as assigned District Officers for these areas and ensure, as much as scheduling allows, the same Officers patrol these identified areas. PSAC would like to champion the community support for these Officers and these staff assignments and work to advocate for this sustained level of visible police patrol to City officials and any potential community opposition. PSAC would like to get to know these assigned Officers and start creating a strong “community-policing” model for these impacted areas. Central Precinct could provide monthly data for these identified areas including:
- Officers currently assigned
- Total calls and types for service
- Crime rates and trends compared to previous month
- Positive stories/highlights from Officers and community
Portland Public Action Safety Coalition (PSAC) is a State of Oregon registered nonprofit organization.
Board of Directors:
Melanie Billings-Yun (Secretary)
Stan Penkin (President)
Policy Adviser: Mark Wells