Targeting the Homeless as a “Prosperity Initiative” in Portland…and in Santa Cruz

NOTES BY NORSE:  Santa Cruz’s Downtown Association has long floated a series of failed bigoted measures to starve out or drive away peaceful panhandlers and unhoused “loiterers” ranging from “Give a Hand Not a Handout” posters in 1989 to the recent red “Imagine” meters–which discourage giving to the visibly needy in favor of those arranging to remove them from sight.  In 1994 then Councilmember, now Supervisor, Neal Coonerty pushed for the Sitting Ban, Tabling Ban, Sparechanging Ban, and Performing Ban ordinances–which banned these activities in most times and places on Pacific Avenue–engineering a huge commercial takeover of what once been a shared space.  (Even a friendly space before the 1989 earthquake where there were dozens of places to sit on the waist-high brick planters that lined Pacific).

               Subsequent laws and police practices have intensified the “no go” zones while attacking homeless camps directly through “clean ’em out” sweeps that simply drive homeless people deeper into the greenbelt or the residential neighborhoods (and also accomplishing its purpose of driving someout of town in despair or disgust.  In effect these measures are a massive shameful attack on what is fundamentally a disabled population–though as of yet there has been no legal response to what is probably illegal under federal disability law.
More recently HUFF has received reports of cafe owners not only driving homeless people out and excluding them for “having backpacks” (Coffee Roasting Company, Starbucks, Peet’s, Abbey Cafe)  but actually threatening them on adjacent sidewalk (Peet’s, Cafe Pergolesi).
Even discussing these issues in the tiny amount of time allowed the public at the twice-monthly City Council meetings under Mayor “Rattlesnake” Robinson (who gives little warning) faces increased threat with her upcoming expansion of “decorum” rules this Tuesday ( shortly after 2:30 PM February 11).  The “rules” formally eliminate the Oral Communications period historically held at 7 PM in the evening (when it was actually available for most workers–rather than at its current 5 PM “doghouse” time–when most of the audience has either left or not arrived).   The highly-restrictive Consent Agenda rules have been set in cement disallowing members of the public the opportunity to speak on the items individually.   A provision attacking independent journalists reads “No audio/visual recording devices may be left unattended at the speaker’s lectern or elsewhere in the Council Chambers.”
The provision that prompted an 11-year court battle and cost the City $125,000+ in the mock-Nazi salute case has been made worse instead of corrected.  It now reads: ” … Any person making personal, impertinent, or slanderous remarks, or becoming boisterous or otherwise disrupting the Council meeting shall be barred by the presiding officer from further attendance at said meeting unless permission for continued attendance is granted by a majority vote of the Council… Every member of the public and every Councilmember desiring to speak shall address the presiding officer, and upon recognition by the presiding officer, shall confine comments to the question under debate, avoiding all indecorous language and references to personalities … Upon instructions of the presiding officer it shall be the duty of the sergeant-at-arms or any police officer present to eject from the Council Chambers any person in the audience who uses boisterous or profane language, or language tending to bring the Council or any Councilmember into contempt…”
A new sentence has been added:   “Persons who disrupt a Council meeting while in session are subject to arrest and prosecution.”    In other words, rein in your criticism of the Council, the cops, and bigots in the community who are harassing homeless people either under color of law or otherwise.  Don’t name names, use tame language, make sure what you’re saying is decorous, even if the abusive behavior you’re describing (stealing homeless property, arresting people for sleeping or sitting) is not.

Portland Police Chief Mike Reese sounds alarm on downtown homelessness, introduces ‘Prosper Portland’ initiative

A criminalist with the Portland Police Bureau photographs the area around the Portland Outdoor Store where an employee was assaulted with a skateboard last July. (Stuart Tomlinson/The Oregonian)

By Maxine Bernstein |   on February 04, 2014 at 6:14 PM, updated February 04, 2014 at 8:36 PM

With Portland’s declining crime rate and a historic low in homicides, Police Chief Mike Reese sounded an alarm on another front Tuesday, calling for a different approach to handling homeless people who sleep downtown.

The chief and his command staff have dubbed the initiative “Prosper Portland” and asked city and county officials, community leaders, social service providers and businesses to work with them to figure out a better way to solve the problem that’s occupying his officers.

Dozens of homeless people on any given night bed down on city sidewalks, under bridges and in alcoves of businesses.
“The job of officers in our downtown neighborhoods is to wake people up,” Reese said. “We know if we don’t wake them up and ask them to go to Portland Rescue Mission or seek other services, that when a business owner pulls up there’s a potential for conflict.”

The chief brought his message to public safety leaders at the monthly Local Public Safety Coordinating Council meeting. His plea follows the decision by Portland Mayor Charlie Hales not to ask state lawmakers this year for more latitude to crack down on panhandlers or homeless people who congregate on sidewalks.  

Last summer, complaints about homeless campers reached a breaking point with people fearful of walking on sidewalks in the downtown’s core, said Assistant Chief Larry O’Dea.

He also pointed to the high-profile skateboard attack in July against a 70-year-old employee of the downtown Outdoor Store, who was struck in the head after he had asked some street youths to move from the sidewalk in front so he could hose it down.

“I’m concerned we’re going to have a repeat of that this year if we don’t do something different,” Reese said.

Jason Renaud, a volunteer with the Mental Health Association of Portland, said he’s skeptical of the initiative. “This is just a continued harassment of homeless people,” he said. It’s unfair for police to highlight one skateboard attack against a downtown employee as representative of what’s happening downtown, he said.

Portland’s on-again, off-again attempts to enforce sidewalk rules have been in flux since 2009, when a judge found that the city’s so-called “sit-lie” ordinance was unconstitutional. Before the ruling, Portland cops could ticket people sitting and sleeping on sidewalks.

Reese reiterated some ideas that have come up before: overtime to allow more officers on walking beats, a “fair and consistent” sit-lie ordinance that cops can use with few legal hassles, as well as more treatment, housing and job opportunities to help homeless people once they’re rousted.

Portland Police Chief Mike Reese introduces his idea for “Prosper Portland,” a new initiative to work with homeless people in downtown Portland.Maxine Bernstein/The Oregonian

“Prosper Portland is to ensure prosperity for everybody – the homeless as well,” Reese said.

He decried the city’s current rules, which he said allow aggressive panhandling and disruption of city sidewalks. Officers end up arresting people on menacing and other offenses, he said.

“The reality is then we start criminalizing low-level behavior,” Reese said.

Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill endorsed having officers work with social service providers and others on early intervention and prevention.

Public safety officials shouldn’t “sweep up” people who don’t need to be in the criminal justice system and who crowd jails and cause an unintended increase in indigent and court expenses, said Underhill, who was at the meeting.

The mayor is considering hiring a private vendor to help police and the transportation and water bureaus clean up sidewalks and areas where homeless people sleep, the chief said.

Reese has asked Transition Projects if officers can take someone cited to appear in community court immediately to the agency’s site at Bud Clark Commons to get treatment or other services.

The Police Bureau also is partnering with a city-based software and information management company, Thetus Corp., to better analyze services available and what’s lacking, he said.

Danielle Forsyth of Thetus said her company is volunteering its time. “This is my home. Prosper Portland is dear to me,” said Forsyth, who lives in the Pearl District.

Reese suggested that paying for the initiative could come from the state’s justice reinvestment funds that are allocated to counties to reduce prison spending, from Portland’s City Council and private dollars.

Scott Taylor, director of Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice, said he supports such a “collaboration conversation,” but suggested reallocating existing resources.

Others at the meeting said it’s easy to focus on downtown Portland, but homeless issues exist elsewhere in the city and in neighboring cities.

“If we can make it work in downtown Portland,” Reese replied, “then Prosper Rockwood is next.”
— Maxine Bernstein


A snowstorm, a tent city and Portland Police Chief Mike Reese

by Israel Bayer | 7 Feb 2014

Click to view larger

A woman sleeps in a doorway in downtown Portland the morning after the snowstorm

What a week on the homeless front. A partnership between some of the most powerful interests in the city and a group of homeless activist, a snowstorm and the Portland police chief announcing a plan to address homelessness downtown. Wow.

I haven’t even mentioned that there’s a plan in the works to potentially move a prominent downtown shelter to the Eastside, but honestly, that’s a story for another time.

I go on the Internet and see reporters and pundits making fun of the conditions in Sochi during the Russian Olympics and then walk out the door at Street Roots in Old Town to see a 64-year-old man freezing in the doorway. You tell me. First things first, a big kudos should go out to all of the men and women who have been working around the clock to serve people on the streets.

Individuals on the streets endure much, and none more than during the current snowstorm. There’s nothing logical or remotely civilized about watching people struggling without a home during the dead of winter.

I go on the Internet and see reporters and pundits making fun of the conditions in Sochi during the Russian Olympics and then walk out the door at Street Roots in Old Town to see a 64-year-old man freezing in the doorway. You tell me. 

There’s been an army of social workers, do-gooders, police officers, the fire bureau, and many others working around the clock during these cold nights. They have one simple goal — to not let anyone freeze to death. They do it with compassion and heart. They should be saluted.

If you’re interested in volunteering or donating goods during cold spells, or anytime for that matter, holler. 2-1-1. It’s one of the most important numbers you can have in your phone.

Pretty sweet that Right 2 Dream Too continues to navigate, with grace no doubt, in some very complex political waters. I’m very happy they’ve been able to negotiate the next steps of their journey with the city.

Here we have a group of 70 individuals experiencing homelessness, many from the Old Town neighborhood, who have managed to collectively pull themselves up by the bootstraps and achieve some amazing feats.

How about giving hundreds of people on the streets a safe place to rest for pennies on the dollar. I mean, we’re not even talking breadcrumbs here. More so, the group has held its head high, while being ridiculed and undercut, sideswiped and pushed down by some of the most powerful downtown interests in this city. That’s what I call some big-time resilience.

So what about Police Chief Mike Reese dropping a pretty big surprise on Portland this week? When the mayor was out of town. Not many people saw that coming.

In case you missed it, Chief Reese, unveiled a plan to tackle downtown homelessness using a range of services — for the most part supported by the community, but led by law enforcement.

Before I even start. I have a lot of respect for Chief Reese. I’ve watched the man deescalate some pretty serious mental health crises with my own two eyes. I’ve also been involved in different processes with him to deliver real outcomes in the community for people on the streets. The man has heart.

That’s why I was a little taken back when he laid out “Portland Prosper,” a complex strategy to curtail homelessness downtown. A lot of what was presented has been worked and reworked for years. What made this proposal different is that it comes at a time when there have been a range of different processes taking place to try to come up with those same solutions.

Let’s step back for a minute.

First, it’s my assumption that the Portland Business Alliance and some folks downtown are mad as hell. They may not say it publically, but let’ be honest. They haven’t been able to move sidewalk legislation forward in two years. They have to deal with a homeless camp called Right 2 Dream Too, and insiders who believe homelessness is actually driving business away from downtown Portland.

Their whole message, packaged in various ways, has amounted to the notion that downtown Portland’s livability is at risk unless we act now. Right now. We’ve heard it time and again, year after year. The British are coming. Damn the torpedoes. Rush the gates. The Road Warriors and homeless people are coming to town and will have a stranglehold on our city.

One of the constant messages to leverage a more robust sidewalk and other quality of life laws has been a skateboard attack at the Outdoor Store downtown this summer. A elderly employee was injured badly by a young man who was presumed to be homeless. It’s a very tragic story, and at this point, I would like to find the kid and throw him in jail for all the trouble he’s caused. But let’ be real, it was one incident.

That’s not to say something bad won’t happen again. It will. We live in a city with more than half a million people. Of course, we should constantly be working to detour violence downtown. What we shouldn’t be doing is making homeless people public enemy number one.

Now, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times. Downtown Portland is thriving. Tourism is at an all-time high, thriving neighborhoods have risen in the Pearl and South Waterfront, and crime is down — way down. We are a city on a hill.
When Chief Reese dropped his proposal about Portland Prosper, my first thought was, that man is going to run for mayor. My second thought was, did Mayor Charlie Hales, his direct supervisor, know about this? My third thought was, does he actually have enough gas in the tank to pull it off?When Chief Reese dropped his proposal about Portland Prosper, my first thought was, that man is going to run for mayor. My second thought was, did Mayor Charlie Hales, his direct supervisor, know about this? My third thought was, does he actually have enough gas in the tank to pull it off?

The plan itself has some interesting aspects that Street Roots has advocated for, like more police officers walking the streets and coordinated approaches to housing. It also has elements that felt like it was drafted by the same interest groups wanting stricter so-called “quality of life” laws.

I decided to do an afternoon’s worth of research and talk to sources around the city. Many of the people I talked with thought that the mayor probably didn’t know about Portland Prosper.  What difference would it make if he did or he didn’t, the thinking was. It might just be the right amount of leverage to pursue a more aggressive public safety agenda downtown. Something Hales has highlighted in pubic speeches.

Then there was the Thetus Corp., a downtown tech firm that has volunteered to work with the police bureau to do a free analytics for services and strategies on downtown homelessness.

It didn’t seem like that big of a deal until Street Roots ran across a 2008 article in the Portland Business Journal on the tech company that reported that Thetus Corp., received funding from In-Q-Tel, a venture fund set up by the Central Intelligence Agency. That’s interesting. I wonder who its other clients are?

Reese recently had a meeting on his schedule with the Thetus Corp., along with police officer Jeff Myers, a controversial figure among the homeless and their advocates.

Myers is known on the homeless front for being a renegade of sorts. His philosophies include targeting people experiencing homelessness through the criminal justice system. He worked closely with former City Commissioner Randy Leonard on a range of projects. His approach to public safety and housing has been a criticized by some and lauded by others.

So here we have a police chief, unveiling a program to target downtown homelessness, out of the blue, at a time when many believe there’s a leadership gap at City Hall on the homeless front. How would the mayor and the rest of City Hall respond? Is it smart politics?

Will someone emerge from City Hall to champion the plan? Where will the money come from? Will other bureaus and non-profits be asked to take part? Will Jeff Myers be overseeing the plan? How will the Thetus Corp. actually play a role? Does it mean passing stricter ordinances affecting the homeless?

There are more questions about Portland Prosper at this point than there are answers.

Stay tuned. We’ll find out soon.