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Homeless population grows as economy tightens

Gateway homeless population grows. A panhandler asks for spare change on Northeast 102nd Avenue near Halsey Street.
Memo photo/Tim Curran
At recent public meetings about ways to revitalize the Gateway business district, people in the audience have denounced “those people” who are causing problems.

“Those people” turn out to be homeless. Without resources or portfolio, sometimes without families or hope, they panhandle along Northeast Halsey and Weidler streets. Others congregate or sleep in the roundabout on Northeast 102nd Avenue and Halsey Street.

Some business owners claim these displaced denizens are scaring customers away.

A few nervous shoppers say they are frightened by requests for spare change. As if they could and should be swept away like dirt on the sidewalk, they demand planners “do something” about the homeless campers.

To address these concerns-so vocal in the past few months-Marc Jolin, executive director of JOIN, a nonprofit that runs a day space for people sleeping outside as well as a housing program, and Jean DeMaster, executive director of Human Solutions, a nonprofit that serves mainly homeless families appeared before the May meeting of Mid-county's neighborhood association chairs group.

Jolin told the group on any night that there are more than 2,000 people sleeping outdoors in Portland.

A few years ago, JOIN moved its day center and office to 1435 N.E. 81st Ave. because “there was such an increase in the number of people living out in east Portland,” Jolin said.

About 80 to 100 people each day come through JOIN's day space program, which is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The space provides showers, phones, snacks and a library with computers, job help and mail service.

“It's a space welcoming to anyone sleeping outside who wants to come into that space,” he said.

Jolin explained the growing numbers of homeless people in east Portland resulted from a combination of a weak economy and a tight rental market that pushed many families and individuals into homelessness. He noted that his organization deals primarily with single individuals who are “chronically homeless.” That definition fits anyone who has lived on the street more than a year and who has a disability.

More people are sleeping out on the street, in cars or in the woods partly because there are not enough shelter beds or not the right type of shelters, Jolin told the group.

Some shelters will not take couples, and others will not take dogs. Others are large congregated living facilities where some people feel uncomfortable. Some, like Transition Projects downtown, require a person to be clean and sober, and even then there's a two- to three-month waiting period. Other shelters downtown use a lottery system so a person never knows each night if there will be a bed available. Someone from east Portland might not want to travel all the way downtown only to discover he or she was not chosen in the lottery and is now stranded downtown.

After the meeting, Jolin told the Memo that another reason more homeless people are congregating in the Gateway area is “some people know Gateway who grew up in the Gateway area or they have a part time job in that area.”

Besides, downtown Portland is not the magnet that draws every homeless person as it was years ago. “People choose parts of town to live in where they feel most comfortable,” Jolin said

Although some people still like the myriad social services available downtown, others feel uncomfortable accessing those services. Some feel that downtown Portland is “very exposed with a lot of pedestrians and traffic,” he said.

On any given night, many residential neighborhoods in Portland-Sellwood, Rockwood, Northwest and others- contain people reduced to living in a car, sleeping on the sidewalk or nearby wooded areas, or in vacant buildings, Jolin pointed out.

Liz Weber, one of seven outreach workers with JOIN, agreed that unhoused individuals choose Gateway for a variety of reasons. “As the economy has gotten tougher, more families are outside and in their cars and stay close to the area that they last lived,” Weber said. “That could be part of it.”

Weber, whose job is to visit homeless people who are camping in wooded areas near east Portland, offering them services through JOIN, said not many campers are sleeping at the roundabout on Northeast 102nd Avenue and Weidler Street-an area of concern to some neighbors. “I think there aren't that many people sleeping overnight there,” Weber said. “Folks are very visible over there. When we've gone out first thing in the morning, I haven't found a ton of people who have been there overnight.” Moreover, where campers sleep changes all the time “depending on where folks are finding they can be overnight and how on top of it the police are at that moment.”

Weber said most of the campers she visits try to keep their wooded camps “low impact”, meaning they use a tent and keep the area clean and tidy. “As long as it's low impact, they're not the highest priority for law enforcement,” she said.

Weber believes any fears of the homeless are generally unfounded. “From my personal experience, being a fairly young, small female who goes to homeless camps all the time, sometimes on my own, the vast majority of the campers have been very respectful to me,” Weber said. “Some people are in your face and more aggressive, and it's unfortunate that they get a lot of the attention.”

Rob Brown, a police officer with the East Precinct neighborhood response team, speculated there are probably more homeless people currently congregating in Gateway. From colleagues who work that beat, he hears there “probably are more homeless people in that area than there generally are. It's always been an area that housed a certain number of homeless people. Just based on what I hear, it's probably getting worse.”

However, Brown does not believe Gateway will become permanently any more attractive to the homeless than other areas in the city. “The homeless problem in Portland is so pervasive,” he said. “They get moved around from one area to another. They might just all be getting moved from other areas and found that a place to be. They have information networks. They talk to each other; they hear through the grapevine where the places are you can go and avoid detection. Gateway might be that place for a while. Then they'll be dispersed and most of them move on someplace else.”

Meanwhile, local business owners are not convinced that Gateway has not become a permanent Mecca for homeless people, some of whom sleep or panhandle in front of their businesses, detracting from the free flow of commerce.

Jolin's advice to business owners is simple: First, talk to the homeless person who might be sleeping in front of the business “and ask them to move to a different spot and respect the needs of the business person,” he said.

If that does not work, the business owner might call the police to “help enforce the law.”

At the same time, it would be helpful to try and get the homeless person connected with available services. Jolin suggested people call 211, an information and referral agency that connects people to services.

Calling JOIN, however, will not pay off in immediate results.

“It's important to know we don't have the capacity to show up immediately when [something's] occurring in front of a business,” Jolin said “It's not generally our role to ask people to move along or stop panhandling or engage in things that are unlawful. It may not be unlawful, but we don't have the authority to enforce. It's something the police are going to have to address.”

Brown explained the law differs depending on whether someone is panhandling or sleeping on private or public property. A private property owner can call the police to have someone removed immediately, if they choose.

“Our only role is to act as their agent,” Brown said, adding that the police are also authorized agents of a person leasing private property. “We can arrest them for trespassing,” Brown said. “On public property, the process is longer. They have to be given notice and allowed time to gather up their belongings and referred to social services.”

Homeless man tells tale of life on east Portland streets
He grew up in Mid-county, joined the Boy Scouts, and worked as a welder in east Portland. Now he is homeless in east Portland. Don, who asked that his last name not be used, sat in a small room at JOIN, a day space for homeless people to shower, get mail and use a phone and a computer to seek jobs. He is wearing a baseball cap pulled down over his close-cropped red hair. He is 48 years old and works 15 to 20 hours a week, sporadically welding and repairing his boss's house. However, his income is not enough to rent an apartment. He has been camping in a sleeping bag and tent in nearby woods for the past six months after he first lost his job, then his apartment and then the cheap motel room he rented by the week.

Asked why he chose to remain in east Portland while so many social services, shelters and free meal programs are downtown, Don replied, “Mine is just safety issues. It's just that downtown has a reputation for being a pretty rough place to be. I thought I'd be safer out here. I usually camp with some other people I can actually trust.”

Besides, on his home turf, he is not as isolated as he would be downtown. He still has old school friends in the neighborhood. “That's why I'm partial to this part of town, because I grew up here,” he said. “This is my hometown. This is where I want to be. My friends are here.”

In the past few months, he has been able to survive by eating at different meal programs provided by local churches and living on $189 a month in food stamps. “The churches help out tremendously with the homeless,” he said.

When he first became homeless, he admits he panhandled on the streets of east Portland. The response from people he approached was mostly positive though he understands why some folks might be standoffish to a stranger approaching them for spare change. “I'm always courteous, and I always say thank you and can you please,” he said. “I try to be very personable and very respectful.”

What would he say to shoppers and neighbors who say they are afraid or annoyed by homeless people?

“We're people like everybody else,” he said. “We're not a disease. We have just fallen on bad times. I think everybody to a degree falls on bad times, so show a little more compassion. We are victims of circumstance. We're just trying to do the right thing and get back to work and be a member of society, making a living and paying taxes like everybody else.”

Don worries that the employment rate in Portland is still very high. “They say it's better but I don't know,” he said.

He hopes the man he works for part time will soon be able to hire him full time. Until then, he will keep camping, a skill he learned growing up as a Boy Scout. However, if he ever finds a stable job and housing, he will be less enthusiastic about recreational camping in the woods. “I don't know if I'll ever do it again,” Don said.
Various governmental agencies have different rules. In the city of Portland, generally, people are given 24 hours to clean up and move on, he said.

Even though the police are called on occasionally, Jolin emphasized that the right to panhandle and ask for donations is a protected activity under both the Oregon and United States constitutions.

“It's a form of free expression,” Jolin said. “As long as people are doing it in a way that is respectful and a simple request, there's not a lot you can do to prevent it. That's different from someone harassing someone or accosting them or behaving aggressively. That's not protected, and whenever it's happening outside a store, it's very important that the police be able to intervene there and hold people accountable for that behavior.”

The majorities of panhandlers are respectful, he said, and dislike the aggressive types who tend to give panhandlers a bad reputation.

The stereotype of some homeless people as criminals is wrong. “Homeless people are vastly more often likely to be the victims of crime and assault than to be the perpetrators of it,” Jolin said.

If a neighbor or business owner is worried about a homeless person they see frequently who appears “vulnerable or unsafe,” and who appears to need social services, then Jolin and his team will send an outreach worker out to connect them with housing, treatment or other services.

Major cuts in federal spending “going back decades” to help the homeless through affordable housing and support services has triggered more people living on the streets. More employment to pay for that housing is also crucial, he said. Jolin hopes Oregon's expansion of Medicaid to all single individuals who are low-income will lead to better medical care as well as treatment for addiction and mental health issues.

“There's a lot of hope among all of us who do this work that people will finally start to be able to get access to the treatment they need,” Jolin said.

For more information, contact JOIN at or call 503-232-2031.
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