Editor’s note: This report begins a three-part series on crime and homeless issues in Parkrose. In our follow-up, we will speak more with police and policy makers about the east side homelessness phenomenon.
The stretch of Sandy Boulevard between 112th and 116th avenues has been in a bad way for quite some time. The large parking lots between Katie’s Backyard Sports Bar and Kingz Auto and between Budget Inn and Signs Now, as well as the parking lot across the street at the Courtesy Inn, have all become magnets for petty crime, public drug use, prostitution, vandalism, littering and destruction of property, all driven primarily by the issue of homeless encampments.
The problem of homelessness is as old as time itself. The struggle between people and nature and the search to have a warm place to lay one’s head has gone on since prehistoric humans roamed. But something has changed about the problem and the way in which it’s cast in the modern world. For probably the first time in human history, a bizarre and heady mix of malaise, mental illness, drug abuse, economic opportunity and technology have made it simultaneously seem harder than ever to make ends meet—and yet more possible than ever to survive on the streets.
Over the last couple of years, a variety of factors including economics, weather, politics and legal matters have caused a swell in homeless migration and community in the Pacific Northwest. According to Trulia, an online residential real estate site for home buyers, sellers, renters and real estate professionals, an aggregation of crime reports found over 221 arrests in the last year in the area between 112th and 116th avenues (and those are just the documented cases where an arrest or citation took place). It doesn’t keep count of the times police were called and either didn’t or couldn’t respond, or responded and made no arrest or citation.
A manager from one of the businesses who requested they not be named commented on the situation and increase in homeless and problems coming with them. “Did I see the difference this past summer? Absolutely. And so a few businesses and Crime Prevention, the police, the [Oregon Liquor Control Commission] and the Neighborhood Association got together at Historic Parkrose and came up with a plan,” says the sometimes-emotional manager.
The manager is referring to a meeting that was brokered by Mingus Mapps of Historic Parkrose Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative and Meg Juarez of the Crime Prevention Program, a part of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. Historic Parkrose NPI is an initiative to preserve the historic Parkrose Business District through storefront improvement grants and other community involvement. Mapps is the district manager and has a very hands-on approach to the situation, and to helping clean up the areas and keep the businesses there vital. The outcome of the meeting was a decision to hire private security to patrol the areas in question nightly between 11 p.m. and 3:30 a.m. It’s in the security guard’s purview to run off trespassers, stop criminal activity in progress and contact police if need be.
“Since we’ve had the security guards, the issue has cut way back. And these were not issues we had in the past,” says the unnamed manager, continuing, “But I know two people who had their cars stolen from in front of their houses in Parkrose. And I feel for people who are homeless, but it’s no secret that they pushed the homeless out of Northwest Portland and out of downtown into northeast. This is something everyone is talking about, how they pushed them all to one side of town.”
The feeling that the homeless problem is not so much a natural occurrence but a man-made problem stemming from policy initiatives to clean up favored west side neighborhoods is a common one, echoed by other business owners on the east side who see the same problems.
Jack Hagan, owner of Northwest Flyfishing Outfitters in Gateway, made a similar charge when discussing the issue of police understaffing and the homeless problem affecting his business.
“I’ve got graffiti, I get tagged at least monthly. We’ve got an abandoned motorhome next to the building. You call the police and they’re like, ‘Can’t do anything about it.’ And when you do get an officer to respond, they can’t do anything about it. And I believe that’s [due to] directives straight from City Hall,” says Hagan. But he has no intention of paying out of pocket for private security like the businesses in Parkrose have done.
While there is no data to confirm a literal push of the homeless from west to east in Portland, the national share of homeless individuals decreased (between 2007 and 2016, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data), and Oregon’s share, while one of the highest in the country, didn’t increase. So there aren’t more homeless people in Portland; it may just seem like it to some if they are indeed being moved and contained into certain areas by policing initiatives and lack of enforcement by directive.
Meg Juarez was working on the Parkrose crime issue for the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. She’s now been promoted to program coordinator, but she remembers the situation well. “Primarily our role was to bring the community together to work on the issues and connect them with the resources available, like Historic Parkrose and the Neighborhood Association and the police,” says Juarez. “The police bureau had done a study, partnering with Portland State University, and they did a community survey as part of that study,” says Juarez. “With the motels and the bars, it was just a triangle of problems there. Out of these meetings came the idea of having them get together and hire security.”
“I think a lot of the miscommunication is coming from our former mayor’s safe sleeping program, where people could sleep on public property from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.” says Mark Wells, who runs Business Watch for the Office of Neighborhood Involvement. “And police were basically instructed to not enforce the illegal camping ban and let people sleep.” Wells is referring to former Mayor Hales’ Safe Sleep program, which attempted to alleviate a temporary crisis by letting the homeless camp and not be rousted at night. The plan was quickly shelved and has left a wake of confusion. “I’m a huge passionate advocate of community policing. I’ve seen it work as an officer and from the community organizing side,” says Wells of the idea of using a Business Watch (like a Neighborhood Watch) to solve the problem.
The idea of a Business Watch is an attractive one, but one that hasn’t been put into effect yet. Wells hopes to work with the businesses soon to change that, but the larger problem of where the homeless can go, and where they go when they have been displaced by a new law enforcement initiative, is not going away any time soon.
Our unnamed manager laments the sad situation at the business, noting that customers have left and business is way down but thankfully the security guards are helping. “It’s a very expensive plan, but it’s the price of doing business.”