One month after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler ordered an unprecedented sweep of homeless encampments in Old Town, he has declared he intends to use similar strategies citywide.
Wheeler announced the new plan at a press conference Monday where the Old Town Community Association provided an update on actions the group asked the city to take to make the neighborhood safer and more business friendly.
The city removed 137 tents from Old Town in April, a 300% increase from that time last year, and another 206 in May, a 450% increase from a year prior, according to data from the city. Since April 1, outreach workers have talked to 175 homeless people in the neighborhood and referred 64 to nearby shelter beds, according to Wheeler.
Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said Monday that Old Town saw a 51% decrease in reported drug offenses, a 93% decrease in trespassing reports and a 13% decrease in vandalism from March 22 to May 20, as compared to the prior 60-day period. He credited that decrease to the city’s response in Old Town.
“We still have work to do but these are trending in the right direction,” Lovell said.
Wheeler said outreach workers from the newly formed Street Services Coordination Center talked to every person who was forced to leave the spot where they were sleeping in Old Town. Each person was offered a shelter bed, transportation to a shelter and help moving or storing their personal belongings, he said. Skyler Brocker-Knapp, a senior policy advisor to Wheeler, said workers spent four weeks in Old Town doing outreach prior to the sweeps.
The Street Services Coordination Center, a collaboration between the city and Multnomah County, was launched in March to ensure that people were provided resources before their camps were swept. Wheeler called it a “coordinated, compassionate response.”
“This neighborhood is our incubator,” Wheeler said. “I think we have a very good formula here and I look forward to using it across the city. … We are seeing early positive results of those efforts.”
But multiple individuals told The Oregonian/OregonLive in the days after the large Old Town sweep in early May that they weren’t helped.
Wheeler acknowledged that not everyone wants to accept a shelter bed and that has caused some people who were pushed out of Old Town to now move to the downtown core or the Pearl District to pitch their tents. Many homeless individuals have said they don’t feel safe in mass indoor shelters, which is primarily the type of shelter that currently has beds available.
“These critical areas of the city also have the full attention of my administration,” he said, noting that outreach teams are currently offering shelter beds to people in downtown and the Pearl.
Some Old Town residents and business owners said Monday that they now feel safer walking through the neighborhood. Kamelah Adams, owner of Mimi’s Fresh Tees, said fewer tents hinted at a hopeful future for businesses.
But over the last three months, Scott Kerman, director of Blanchet House, which offers free meals, peer support and other homeless services in Old Town, said his organization witnessed a different kind of story.
After offering to-go meals for most of the pandemic, Blanchet House reopened their doors for indoor dining on May 2. Kerman said this has given him and his staff a front-row seat to how people are really doing.
“We’re seeing a great deal of mental health distress and crisis,” he said. “We’re seeing what we’re told is increased psychotic episodes and behavior as a result of the meth and fentanyl available on the street. We’re seeing folks with significant disabilities trying to survive.”
Kerman said he has seen some women in profound mental health crises who don’t understand the services being offered to them. He said they can be the most challenging clients to serve because the trauma they’ve experienced is so severe and they can be quick to become defensive and violent because that’s how they’ve protected themselves from those who have harmed them in the past. While Kerman described the situation as “profoundly sad,” he said there are peer support specialists during most mealtimes that can make a significant impact.
Kerman said the question of whether Wheeler’s new sweeps plan is good policy is more complicated than a yes or no answer. But he did say that sweeps increase the agitation and anxiety in the people his nonprofit serves.
Behavioral health experts have also said the trauma of sweeps can heighten symptoms of mental health issues.
Advocates continue to say that peer support specialists and other mental health resources are severely lacking. Coupled with housing, mental health resources are critical to truly address the root cause of why so many people have lived in tents in the Old Town area, advocates say.
Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for Wheeler’s office, said the city does not track homeless Portlanders once they move into shelter so they can’t say if those who were swept from Old Town were given a housing assessment, were connected to an apartment or were offered mental health services.
While the Street Services Coordination Center works with local partners like Central City Concern and Cascadia Behavioral Health, Bowman said it doesn’t track those referrals so the city doesn’t know if or how many people may have been connected to mental health services.
Bowman also said the city doesn’t know if and how many people were given a housing assessment, which is the first step to receiving rental assistance, because the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services tracks that information. The joint office was not able to immediately say if any housing assessments were done in coordination with the Old Town tent removals.
Wheeler said the city is developing a web application that outreach workers will be able to use to track interactions with individuals and to note what services were offered and received. This would connect the work the coordinated center is doing with work the joint office is doing.
“The Old Town neighborhood has been disproportionately affected by the crises that are impacting our city today,” Wheeler said. “I know Portlanders want us to address the problems with compassion.”
Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian/OregonLive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.