Is Portland’s homeless population being shifted to the east side? And if so, is there something that can be done about it to both compassionately accommodate that reality as well as assert east Portlanders’ right to a livable community?
In our last issue, we looked at homelessness as a problem that seems to be driving petty crime, public drug use and vandalism in the Parkrose neighborhood (“Crime causes businesses to hire private security in Parkrose” MCM February 2018), as well as across the city and the west coast. Specifically, the Mid-county Memo observed it from the point of view of the businesses in the area, on Sandy Boulevard and in Gateway, who have resorted to hiring private security to keep their parking lots and neighborhood clear for commerce and other desperate measures. One of the oft-repeated complaints is that the homeless population has exploded to the east of 82nd Avenue, while police enforcement has not matched that growth.
We spoke with Mayor Ted Wheeler about the issue, and he immediately refuted the assertion that east Portland neighborhoods have it the worst. “The neighborhood in this city that has the biggest problem is a toss up between Lents and Old Chinatown,” says Wheeler. “If you ask the folks in downtown, they’ll say the situation is worst there.”
But he does seem to have an answer for why it seems there was a sudden homeless population explosion in some neighborhoods, linking it to the 2016 Springwater Corridor restoration project, which saw as many as 500 homeless people evacuated from the trail and relocated. “I will tell you that when the Springwater Corridor was cleaned out a year and a half ago, I think a lot of people felt that that would simply solve the problem,” says Wheeler. “What really happened was [that] people moved out of the Springwater Corridor and they moved into the adjacent neighborhoods. And so many people reported to the city that they saw the homeless population explode overnight.”
But he strongly disputed the idea that the homeless population is in any way being forced eastward. “The problem really is getting worse, and it’s getting worse city-wide. But there is no strategy to push people anywhere,” says Wheeler.
Byron Brown doesn’t agree. Brown and his family have recently moved into a home in Hazelwood after spending four years homeless. He echoed the same sentiments as the business owners who struggle with homeless encampments near their businesses. “They’re pushing us away, they’re pushing us further and further out [east],” says Brown, though he wasn’t sure why. “They’re snobs. And this is a racist city, very racist.” Brown gave us some insight into factors that drive homelessness in the city. He noted that the homeless services in east Portland are far more plentiful than on the west side, which draws homeless populations. That was his main location driver when he was living on the streets. A Google Maps search of homeless services and a Homeless Shelter Directory search show nearly three times as many shelters and other service centers for homeless people on the east than west of the river. The Northwest district features virtually nothing in terms of shelters.
In our previous piece on this issue, we stated that the homeless population had not technically increased in Portland, which is a misstatement. The increase has simply been masked by a growth of shelters and other places to keep these people off the streets on a nightly basis. A point-in-time study commissioned by Portland State University and released in October 2017 reported as much as a 10 percent increase in people self-reporting as homeless, though the number sleeping outside on any given night hadn’t increased. This is one of the chief problems with attempting to find solutions for this problem. Getting people off the streets is clearly a positive goal, but temporary solutions like shelters would need to be spread more evenly to avoid attracting a critical mass of people in need of these services in one place—something that many say is currently happening in east Portland. “I’d go close to family member’s place. Somewhere my kids can use the bathroom,” says Brown. He pointed out that this would make the new parks that have opened, and are yet to open, magnets for homeless populations. “I stayed in motels a lot, kept the kids in motels.” Among the motels he stayed in with his family was the now-demolished Carolina Motel on Sandy Boulevard, right in the epicenter of the area covered in our previous piece.
Indeed, there are already anecdotal accounts of late night gatherings and people utilizing the restroom facilities after-hours at the newly opened Luuwit View Park and reports from homeowners who live near the park. Mark Ross, with Portland Parks and Recreation, responded to the reports with a vow of Ranger attention. “We will have Portland Park Rangers make visits on several occasions starting as soon as possible; and they will ensure everyone is aware of park rules. We want the park to be enjoyable for all visitors,” says Ross. He also reminds people living nearby to contact Park Rangers directly, at 503-823-1637, to report problems.
“I will tell you that wherever I go in the city, this is issue number one. Everybody is upset about it. Everybody demands action,” says Mayor Wheeler. “My administration and my budgets back that need, and we’re going to continue to do what we need to be both compassionate in our response to the homeless folks on our street, who are truly vulnerable, and we’re going to continue to address public safety and livability issues head on.”
Among the most valuable tools in the mayor’s arsenal are nonprofits like Human Solutions, soon to be occupying a brand-new facility next to Gateway Discovery Park. “The best thing that happened to me was Human Solutions,” says Brown of the nonprofit that helped him, and his family find a permanent home. But Human Solutions is stretched thin regarding both their shelters and a vast array of other services. Moreover, they’re facing their own current crisis with the closing of their Family Center shelter on Southeast Stark Street at 160th Avenue. Covered at length in an ongoing Oregon Public Broadcasting series, the Family Center was forced to close due to a crumbling roof, but the articles are exposing a litany of health and safety violations. “The one that just closed down, I kept telling them you could see big old bubbles in the ceiling,” says Brown. He used to stay at that shelter with his family before transitioning to a home in Hazelwood. “I love the neighborhood [and] how quiet it is,” says Brown of his current accommodations.
Interestingly, in addition to echoing the concerns of businesses regarding the city’s policies, Brown also seconded their concerns about drug paraphernalia, hygiene and other basic livability issues. “The thing about being homeless is you don’t have to be homeless and dirty and nasty,” says Brown. “Even at this property—I don’t know which house it is, but there’s a dope house on this block—I found a fanny pack with meth, with the pipe, all of it. Just sitting on the ground.”
Where he disagrees is on the idea of solving the problem with more police officers. “The solution is to have more space. Give them one of these properties,” says Brown, referring to the many large and abandoned lots around town that are deep in the queue for development. “If they want to live like that, give them those properties. But they must regulate it. There has to be some sort of regulation on these camps, or it gets crazy. Everybody’s just gotta have respect for each other.”
Brown sees no end in sight to the issue of homelessness if the city and state government keep shifting the problem from community to community. “They’ll never be happy until they got who they want in this place.”