Our Opinion: City must raise its livability standards
A statement made by the head of Portland's police union more than two weeks ago is still making waves, like, well, ripples in a sewer.
"Our City has become a cesspool," Daryl Turner wrote in an email that was posted on the Portland Police Association Facebook page on July 16. "Livability that once made Portland a unique and vibrant city is now replaced with human feces in businesses' doorways, in our parks, and on our streets. Aggressive panhandlers block the sidewalks, storefronts and landmarks like Pioneer Square, discouraging people from enjoying our City.
"Garbage-filled RVs and vehicles are strewn throughout our neighborhoods," he continued. "Used needles, drug paraphernalia, and trash are common sights lining the streets and sidewalks of the downtown core area, under our bridges, and freeway overpasses. That's not what our families, business owners, and tourists deserve."
The provocative statement clearly struck a nerve.
A typical PPA post gets shared by a few dozen readers. As of Monday, Turner's July 16 manifesto had been passed on nearly 1,000 times.
While some accused the union leader of associating the city's homeless population with trash (or worse), most people commenting on Facebook and media websites were supportive.
That shouldn't surprise anyone.
A survey of Portlanders conducted last fall by KGW-TV found that while three out four Rose City residents feel compassion for the homeless, they also are extremely frustrated.
The survey, conducted by DHM Research, found that Portlanders see evidence of homelessness nearly every day — citing some of the same examples Turner used.
One of the most troubling statistics from the poll (which was part of KGW's "Tent City USA" series) was that nearly half of the respondents said they avoid certain neighborhoods because of concerns over homelessness, and more than a third of the respondents said that things were so bad that they have considered moving out of the city.
While Turner's sentiments about the impact of homelessness on livability are shared by many, the fact that he'd make such an inflammatory statement in public reflects the very real frustrations that police have.
Turner was responding to Mayor Ted Wheeler's statements about how police deal with the city's homeless residents. The mayor's comments followed a story in the Oregonian showing that the majority of people arrested by Portland police last year were homeless.
In an interview with the Portland Tribune last week, Turner told reporter Nick Budnick that his goal was not to demonize people living on the streets but to underscore the need to put more public resources into helping them.
He also took the opportunity to make an unpopular, but undeniable, observation: Despite the real progress that has been made in providing more shelter beds and building affordable housing in Portland, the problems related to homelessness seem to be getting worse.
"The word 'cesspool' doesn't mean [Portland] is the worst city in the country," he told the Tribune. "What it means is that from what Portland was 20 years ago ... we are seeing a downhill slide that is unprecedented. We are not blaming it on people who are experiencing homelessness or mental illness or joblessness. We are placing the blame on policies that don't allow people to get the resources that they need to empower them to take over their own lives."
Turner thinks a part of the solution is the creating of a social service campus designed for the homeless, similar to San Antonio's Haven For Hope (havenforhope.org).
We agree that such a model, currently being explored by private developers at the former Wapato Jail site, holds promise.
But first, county officials (who are charged with providing social services) need to focus on the findings of the consultant they recently hired to look at their overly complex mental health system. Those working in and with the county told the consultant that many homeless people come to Portland thinking they will have more access to services, only to face unexpected barriers in an overwhelmed and fragmented system.
We'd also like to see an analysis of the impact of effectively decriminalizing property crimes such as car thefts and burglaries in Multnomah County, and whether that is linked to the high number of interactions between police and the homeless.
Finally, the city and county must take the lead on data-based research into what policies and approaches — including law enforcement practices — are in place in other cities, particularly on the I-5 corridor. In a recent round of media interviews, Wheeler deflected questions about the visible homeless population by saying it's happening all along the West Coast.
Perhaps Portland can borrow ideas from other cities and, if needed, pursue legislation or agreements to ensure that other jurisdictions are doing their part in helping support houseless people.
What's most important, though, isn't what's happening in other cities. Portland should have its own standards for livability — and in that respect, Turner is correct. Portland isn't living up to its aspirations.