By Midge Pierce
Portland residents, generally tolerant to a fault, have hit a tipping point over the City’s inability to solve the homeless crisis.
With camps sprouting from SE Washington St., to Belmont, Stark and Powell, outrage escalates as residents claim that camps intended as refuge for the needy are turning into havens for criminals. On social media and street corners, neighbors share tales of being harassed, observing drug trafficking and the exchange of presumably stolen goods like bicycles and car parts, as well as dodging detritus such as needles and other drug paraphernalia in sidewalk trash piles that contain human waste.
The crisis has become excruciating for those legitimately down on their luck as well as for citizens fearful of dangerous elements and appalled at the City’s lack of responsiveness. Despite success in housing some families and veterans, complaints about the City’s ineffectiveness rise with the street population.
It will only get worse. Now that fair weather has left town and the Springwater Trail has been swept, the promise of Terminal 1 and the potential of the Wapato Jail have stalled out. The houseless have nowhere to go.
Homeless advocates call for compassion. Residents want an effective reporting process. Police claim to be overwhelmed in the face of City emergency policies that do little to stem the tide of people without a roof over their head.
At an eastside neighborhood association meeting, a police officer said, “No one is more frustrated than we are.” His usual beat is Powell Blvd. in the 70s where camps are routinely sprouting, but because police ranks are so depleted, he covers much of the Eastside down to the river – too broad an expanse to address problems in a timely manner.
He recognizes public sentiment is nearing a flashpoint. “It used to be that 90% of residents were sympathetic to the homeless.” Now, attitudes have flipped and a clear majority of residents want homeless out of their neighborhoods. They claim it’s a safety and crime, not a NIMBY, issue.
On its websites, the City seeks patience, calm and understanding as it balances the needs of citizens’ safety with care for its vulnerable street population.
In Sunnyside, neighbors are in an uproar over the City’s soft touch and what they call a “crime wagon” camp set up for weeks in front of a PGE substation off Belmont at 32nd. They claim it is a front for stolen goods and has been involved with a local assault and a fire.
“Neighbors no longer feel safe here,” said Michele Gila, among a dozen or so residents banded together one afternoon on the sidewalk across from the camp to plea for the City to take action. “It’s like residents don’t have rights anymore,” she continued, citing a verbal threat from one of the squatters that a resident deserved to have his house burned down.
Meg Hartley, who started an email chain on the social media site Next Door (which at this writing had hit roughly 500 mostly angry comments), said the City has given the homeless “full control” and a free pass to Portland’s neighborhoods.
She is especially concerned about children at a nearby school. “This is a multi-pronged problem,” she said, explaining that there is a big difference between homelessness and lawlessness. “This is the latter. Protecting our families is our first priority.”
Like dozens of other neighbors, Hartley spent weeks detailing suspicious activities and calling on agencies to remove vehicles, tarps and trash. Residents called One Point of Contact, the police non-emergency line, traffic and parking enforcement and Portland Gas & Electric, which, despite a fire lit in front of its property, said the utility was powerless to remove vagrants without police assistance.
Hartley acknowledged that forcing the campers off 32nd would push the problem down the road. It did. After the caravan was finally tagged for towing, the camp’s notorious white Oldsmobile showed up a few blocks away.
“I love this town, but I may be forced to leave if the lawlessness doesn’t stop.” Hartley’s sentiment was echoed by others.
As emails exploded into hundreds, and incendiary comments grew more intense, a few neighbors jumped in calling for decency, empathy and acts of kindness. One warned of mob mentality and urged residents to differentiate those who may be homeless by choice from people who are homeless by circumstance. Another called upon neighbors to reach out and offer campers help. Replies turned ugly.
A similar trajectory of fear-fanning-into-furor played out on social media in connection with camps on Powell at 75th and elsewhere in SE.
A representative of the six-year-old Next Door site, said the network is intended to build community, not divide it. She also noted that the technology should not be used as an alternative to seeking appropriate law enforcement.
Sunnyside resident Erin Mensing said, “Being on this thread has shown me how much effort it takes to get anything done. Our town is being overrun by trash, drugs and crime under the guise of homelessness.” She recently launched an instagram account to document pictures of perceived camp problems.
The more flagrant lawlessness becomes, the harder it is to fix the problem, according to resident Katherin Kirkapatrick. The result is that responsible renters and owners flee and abandoned neighborhoods disintegrate.
“I’ve watched it happen,” she said, blaming the mayor’s office for top down policies that stomp on residents’ rights.
In its homelessness toolkit, the City says it is “Working to balance health, safety and livability for the housed and houseless” although so far, no solution is in sight for the outraged, the compassionate or the truly needy.
Police non-emergency number: 503.823.3333
One Point of Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Homelessness Toolkit: portlandoregon.gov/toolkit
Online Campsite Report Form: portlandoregon.gov/campsite
Homelessness Toolkit: portlandoregon.gov/toolkit
To learn about positive neighborhood involvement that can lead to safer streets:
Cellphone app: pdxreporter app
Parking enforcement 503.823.6814