By Midge Pierce
Winter’s chill has made the houseless situation heartbreakingly acute in every corner of town. Now, fear is the latest twist in the homeless crisis.
Homeless camps sprout in public parks, rights of way and the sidewalks next door. Some like the Overlook neighborhood’s Hazelnut Grove, are well-organized and have the mayor’s blessing. Others in outer SE are unregulated and according to neighbors, lawless.
Much of the alarm is bubbling from the Springwater Corridor’s so-called Avenue of Terror.
Harassed joggers, intimidated moms with strollers and even hardcore cyclists avoid the corridor that crosses 82nd. The nature trail is filled with drug paraphernalia, tarps, trash and reputed bike “chop shops”.
Cartlandia entrepreneurs are folding their operations as burglaries mount and customers shy away. Brentwood-Darlington residents report incidents of rock-throwing, threats and theft with little or no police intervention. One says it is only a matter of time before significant violence occurs.
Fear makes it harder to find options. Commissioner Amanda Fritz who heads the Parks Bureau has asked every neighborhood to provide recommendations for where they can provide housing or allow tent camps.
Commissioner Dan Saltzman calls tent camps impractical and continues to press Multnomah County to open its empty, tax-payer-funded Wapato prison as an emergency shelter.
The mayor terms the situation a crisis. He has called on all city bureaus to cut 5% of budgets to divert funds to emergency and affordable housing unless revenues provide significant windfalls.
Neighborhood associations grapple with a letter from the Overlook NA seeking support for rules that, at one point, included registration of camp residents.
Community organizers call such a list offensive. Mothers say a list is necessary to keep criminals and sex offenders out of camps. Others see it as a way to separate out the truly needy from the lawless. Activists say the camps can self-regulate.
In SE Portland’s largest park, the Friends of Mt. Tabor Park (a stewardship group that monitors weeds and debris and is charged with keeping the park “safe, clean and beautiful”) expresses sympathy for the homeless, but says camps in Mt. Tabor would harm a fragile ecosystem.
Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association is seeking a forum to find citywide remedies to the crisis.
Police say they receive mixed signals about intervention but admit a criminal element is out there. Cues from the mayor emphasize that being homeless is not a crime.
Officers on the street say a combination of City directives and staff shortages mean police have cut back routine patrols and transparency that might ease public fears.
“We know there are good people and bad in the camps. We can’t even say we’re watching them.”
Police Public Information Officer Pete Simpson confirms that response is sometimes limited and certain types of calls are moved to telephone reports only. “People reporting incidents need to be aware that just reporting homeless people may not generate a police response.”
Reports of specific criminal acts, however, will result in an officer being dispatched, he says.
Solutions seem elusive, though some benchmarks have been met. Hundreds of veterans are now housed and a woman’s shelter has opened on the westside. Several private buildings have been offered for temporary housing.
An obvious solution, the opening of that never-used, $58 million Wapato jail, has stalled. County officials say its impractical to house homeless far from city services, but a petition launched by homeless advocate Jeff Woodward continues to circulate with claims that hundreds of homeless could be better served in the facility than on the streets.
As concerns mount, police spokesman Simpson says he shares citizen frustrations but says police are powerless to do more. “We are only able to address criminal behavior not social challenges.”
Unless it’s an emergency, Simpson urges citizens to call the non-emergency line at 503.823.3333. Reports can also be filed online at portlandpolice.com.
By Midge Pierce