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Portland homeless crisis sows dissent in tolerant city


    Homeless advocate Mike Davis, of Knowing Me Ministries, left, and concerned neighbor Gus Kroll and his daughter Flannery, walked through a homeless camp, on Aug. 10, that was swept by police in Portland’s southeast Lents neighborhood in Oregon.


    Deitra Schmer, standing, and her grandchildren Adrian Atkinson, left, Andrea Brown, middle, and Jordan Otey, listened as friend Terry Daniel talked about the planned police sweep of the homeless encampment where Schmer lives along the Springwater Corridor in Portland, Ore.


    Deitra Schmer watched as her granddaughter, Andrea Brown, brushed her hair and grandson Adrian Atkinson, right, looked on in Schmer’s tent in a homeless encampment along the Springwater Corridor bike and pedestrian trail in Portland, Ore.


    “Mohawk” Craig Alexenko sat on top of refuse cleared out of a homeless encampment along the Springwater Corridor during a Sept. 1 police sweep in southeast Portland, Ore. The city of Portland has declared a “homeless emergency” as skyrocketing rents, an affordable housing shortage and a lack of shelter beds has led to encampments all across the city, including the one where Alexenko has been living.

PORTLAND, Ore. » There have always been homeless people in Portland, but last summer Michelle Cardinal noticed a change outside her office doors.

Almost overnight, it seemed, tents popped up in the park that runs like a green carpet past the offices of her national advertising business. She saw assaults, drug deals and prostitution. Every morning, she said, she cleaned human feces off the doorstep and picked up used needles.

“It started in June and by July it was full-blown. The park was mobbed,” she said. “We’ve got a problem here and the question is how we’re going to deal with it.”

The city is booming, and the homeless are more visible than ever before. Skyrocketing rents, cripplingly low vacancy rates and a severe shortage of affordable housing are forcing Portland to re-examine its live-and-let-live attitude in a place where residents have long been tolerant of everything but intolerance.

And in a city where the mayor says “unhoused” instead of homeless and where tent camps have names like Dignity Village and Right 2 Dream Too instead of Skid Row and The Jungle, residents are wondering if Portland needs to rethink its strategy as a permanent solution seems ever-more elusive.

“The city doesn’t have a coherent approach to … really enforcing any type of rules about where people can camp,” said Chris Trejbal, who lives near a homeless camp called Hazelnut Grove.

“It’s been a disaster. There’s no leadership.”

The issue peaked this year when Portland declared a homeless state of emergency and Mayor Charlie Hales made it legal to sleep on city streets.

At the same time, Portland welcomed 1,000 new residents a month and the average rent has increased about $100 a month. The metropolitan area needs 24,000 more affordable housing units; vacancy rates are some of the lowest in the nation.

“It’s white hot, people want to move here and live here, as well they should. It’s an amazing city, but our zoning and our planning process is really behind the curve in terms of providing flexible and affordable living arrangements,” said Mayor-Elect Ted Wheeler. “It has not caught up with the new reality.”

Part of that reality is the nearly 1,900 unsheltered people who camp from Portland’s downtown core to its rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods to the forested areas along the urban fringe. A one-night count last year found the overall number of homeless people hasn’t increased significantly, but the number of chronically homeless has risen steadily to make up about half of the total population.

Portland has earmarked $250 million for affordable housing and has a $250 million housing bond on the November ballot.

The city has also joined forces with Multnomah County to tackle the crisis head-on with $43 million in funding; leaders in a new coalition want to cut homelessness by half in three years.

Yet there is a potent belief that the city isn’t doing enough because homelessness suddenly seems everywhere.

There aren’t enough short-term beds while Portland works at long-term solutions. When one camp is shut down, another pops up.

After letting up to 500 homeless people live for months along a 21-mile bike trail in southeast Portland, the city cracked down and last week uprooted a network of tents, some of them stuffed with armchairs and couches.

Neighbor LaDawna Booze had called police repeatedly to report drug use, theft and excessive noise there.

“I haven’t been out in my own yard in a few years. I feel like I’m watched everywhere,” she said. “It’s changed my life.”

Booze isn’t alone. The issue was a constant in this spring’s mayoral campaign and it dominates the local news. Since June, 5,000 people have called a hotline to complain about homeless camps, according to The Oregonian/OregonLive.

Hales, who dropped out of the race for re-election, has struggled to find a common ground between upset business leaders and homeowners and homeless advocates, who feel the city is shuttling the homeless around with no plan.

He was sued after announcing his “safe sleep” policy, but the city was sued again last month after commissioners voted to proceed with plans to turn a vacant industrial warehouse into a 400-bed homeless shelter.

Suggestions to house the unsheltered in a mothballed jail have been slammed for symbolically criminalizing homelessness but a state land use board killed a plan last week to move a city-sanctioned tent village to industrial land.

“You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t so you’d better ‘do,’ because no good deed goes unpunished when it comes to homelessness,” said Hales, who ended the ‘safe sleep’ policy after six months.

Those on the streets are craving answers as the cold and rain of a Portland winter approach.

Deitra Schmer moved into an RV when the city swept the Springwater Corridor. She has nowhere else to go and says she couldn’t keep her job as a certified nursing assistant because she had no stability.

“You can’t move every 10 days or every three days and keep your job. It just doesn’t work,” she said. “Not to have to worry about where I’m going to lay my head — that’s my biggest issue.”

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  • Portland welcomes all homeless, legal and illegal residents, disabled, elderly, children, etc. etc. The more the merrier. Portland is so enlighted — cough, cough, choke, choke.

    • These people should all be locked up, taught how to live for 5 years and if they relapse locked up forever. Alternatively lets elect Duterte – it’s more cheap and reasonabler.

        • The Democrats wants no borders or deportation of millions of illegal migrants in which the US can’t take care of their homeless people! Yikes! Trump is for the US Citizens 1st! take care of our own homeless citizens before anyone else. Illegal migrants are taking away funds from US homeless citizens! Too bad some of these if not most will not be going to the polls to vote for a new regime that’d do better for them.

  • Sounds like a familiar problem. Also, to call these people “unhousesd” and think that to be part of the solution seems to be the typical stupid comment from a PC politician. Read my lips. These people are “homeless” as in, they don’t live in a house. And if anyone thinks this problem will be solved by politicians, your dreaming. This problem has been created by politicians who have funneled money to pet projects and friends then created obsticles for affordable housing by overregulating and now blame everything on the wealthy while they gladly take money from them.

    • Wonder how many deadbeats showed up after Oregon legalized marijuana? Better thank twice about the idiocy of doing the same in Hawaii. Marijuana has a habit of destroying ambition in regular users and leading to other drug habits. That means regular users are less likely to have steady employment. Which also means they don’t pay taxes and are a net drain on society.

      • Hawaii has granted the “hui s” licenses to establish dispensaries so it’s leading to more addicted homeless population. Some will profit and the taxpayers shackled with the problems while “hui s” laugh all the way to the bank. The needle finds/clean-ups in Oregon indicate addiction in the homeless camps.

  • ….and we thought we have a hopelesssly homeless problem. Other States are in worse situation since their borders are easily accessible for countless homeless people from other States. Although, there is no guarantees our State can keep out homeless from other States our borders aren’t easily accessible for them. Otherwise, our homeless populations would be astronomical greater than the existing numbers. Nonetheless, homelessness population seem hopelesssly out of control without a plausible answer in sight!

  • Itʻs not a homeless problem, itʻs a poverty problem. In todayʻs America, you can work full time, even in nursing, as the lady in the article, and still not be able to find a reasonably priced place to live. Itʻs not laziness, itʻs not greed, itʻs not drugs. Itʻs despair. The reality we do not want to face is that what was once mid to lower middle class is now really poverty. And all of the illness, fear and uncertainty that comes with it. All the smug, judgmental nastiness and surgically removed empathy like some commenters here express is chilling – in todayʻs lopsided economy, weʻre all really only a few paychecks or a medical crisis away from the same fate and the same jeers – unless weʻre in the right class – in which case you should examine your privilege and wake up.

    • To TheFarm
      And just how do your remarks address the real problem people have in Portland, or anywhere else?
      You simply throw sanctimony at those who attempt to find a solution.
      Typical PC. Blah blah blah. Meanwhile Rome burns.

      • Oh gosh! Which arrogant, knee jerk, unconstitutional “solution” offered here are you “attempting to find” in order to to solve growing poverty and income inequality? rounding people up? jailing them? closing our borders to domestic migration? starving people? denying them water? Typical rightwing. Blah blah blah. Compassion is a moral failing, Ayn Rand is god, ubermensch or bust.

        • More blah blah blah. Yawn! But you feel good about yourself, thinking you stand on the high moral ground.
          Still no answers, only questions.
          Ayn Rand sees life more clearly than you do, but then again, you probably are a taker in life.
          Easy to give away what is not yours.

    • TheFarm, sometime we come across a person high on the pedestals of empathy for mankind! Pat yourself on the back kid, you’re one of the few that grace this world with your kindness and understanding of the human race. God bless you and thanks for making my day!

  • Just like Hawaii, the elected’s have enabled these folks to do just about whatever they want. If they want to camp, they should be told where. The rest of us have to follow the rules. I see the drunkedness and drug use in Portland and Hawaii and our elected’s continue to allow it! Step up and do your job’s or step aside.

  • Maybe economics should be required in every classroom across the country. Being homeless is a choice, perhaps this wasn’t exactly the choice but choices led to events that put them where they are.

  • This is the president’s legacy after almost eight years in office, war without end, homosexuals serving openly in the military, and an army of homeless. Way to lift all boats Mr. President.

    • Blah, blah blah, stop pointing fingers and do something about it! It is a state and local issue. Let your representatives know you want them to pass defensible legislation to “heck yeah” criminalize homeless squating on public spaces. They are a filthy nuisance endangering the public and we demand action.

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