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City gets wake-up call

• Homeless population's surge overwhelms downtown

Portland's new mayor said the city is trying to find a way to deal with the growing number of panhandlers and street people clogging downtown sidewalks.

That should be good news for business owners, who worry that many shoppers avoid downtown, where they might have to dodge panhandlers on the transit mall Ñ favored for begging because it's a high-traffic area Ñ and step over people settled down with bedroll, backpack and, often, a dog.

Mayor Tom Potter, in office for less than a month, said that the city is addressing the situation, in part by directing more money to social service agencies. 'Within six months, we expect to see a difference downtown,' he promised.

'When there are street people around, loitering and just generally hanging out, it's very intimidating to the customers,' said Victoria Taylor, owner of the 25-year-old Mercantile, 735 S.W. Park Ave. 'We really need a healthy downtown. We have fine stores, we have great restaurants, we have a wonderful cultural district Ñ and we have to maintain our property and our atmosphere in downtown Portland.'

The city's problem is summed up by breathtaking statistics: There are an estimated 16,000 homeless people in the area, with up to 4,000 on the streets on any given night, according to Bob Durston, chief of staff to city Commissioner Erik Sten, who in November released a 10-year plan aimed at ending homelessness in Portland.

Elected city officials hear plenty of complaints about the people on the streets, Durston said. 'The numbers are starting to be alarming to everybody.'

Potter, who has met with business owners, said the growing number of street people 'is a problem for our business community. All indications are that downtown is safe, but some (street) people are fairly aggressive.'

Downtown worker Chris McDonald said the street people bother her next-door neighbor so much that he refuses to get on or off the MAX line at Pioneer Courthouse Square 'because of the people' who line the block.

McDonald's concern goes in another direction. 'I think the saddest part is the people who need help and they're not getting it. And they're not going to get it by panhandling downtown,' she said.

Judy Gillis, who with her husband, Stan, opened the Real Mother Goose at 901 S.W. Yamhill St. in 1978, said out-of-town shoppers praise Portland for its beautiful downtown Ñ while commenting less favorably on how many street people the city has.

'No question, there are more people on the streets,' said Sister Cathie Boerboom, who started the Rose Haven women's drop-in center, at 116 N.W. Third Ave., six years ago.

Recently, Boerboom said, there's been a startling jump in new client numbers Ñ 30 in one week, an all-time high. Rose Haven serves about 80 women a day, offering community and intervention services; it operates under the auspices of Catholic Charities.

Tim Greve, president of Carl Greve Jewelers, a downtown fixture for 82 years, said he's an optimist, but he's also uneasy about downtown's health Ñ a concern brought on by many vacant storefronts and a 12 percent office vacancy rate.

The joint problems of increased crime and increased homelessness both hurt downtown, he said, by making the area less attractive, 'which then leads to more vacancies, fewer shoppers. It's a spiral that just keeps going.'

Plan puts housing first

Sten's plan to end homelessness, prepared by a 15-member citizens commission, would reallocate some of the $32 million that the county now spends annually on services to homeless people.

Most of the funds now are used to pay for emergency room visits, jail beds and shelters; Sten's plan seeks ways to get the chronically homeless into housing.

The number of emergency shelter beds available doesn't come close to meeting the demand. Heather Lyons, homeless program manager for the city of Portland, said there are 486 beds for single individuals, a number that increases by about 150 in the winter, and another 226 beds for families with children, which climbs by 30 in the winter, when additional hotel vouchers are available.

The shelter bed count has stayed static for several years, she said, and now, 'we are operating under a plan where we really don't want to have to build any more shelters,' she said, referring to the Sten plan.

Complaints called in

But more homeless and not enough shelter space means more people sleeping on the streets, on loading docks, under bridges, in building recesses.

Ardy Petrik, who has been homeless since August, said he's slept on church steps and in alcoves and doorways of businesses around Southwest 12th Avenue and Main Street. In the daytime, he and his partner move to the bus mall outside Meier & Frank's downtown flagship store. With more foot traffic, it's a good place to panhandle, he said.

Petrik said business owners have told him to move, but he tries to avoid being kicked out of his sleeping spot by not settling in until 8 p.m. to 9 p.m., and moving out by 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. 'If you oversleep they come along and say, 'You gotta get outta here or we're calling the police,' ' he said.

Police also have told him to move, but he thinks they're 'just going through the motions because people complained.'

The mayor said there's better coordination now between police and social service agencies. Echoing Sten's plan, Potter said the goal is 'to get them off the streets and into housing and start dealing with their problems.'

The gripes to public officials don't just come from downtown. Durston said panhandlers on freeway ramps generate their share of comments from irritated citizens.

Downtown, the street people represent a wide range of ages and issues, from street kids and their dogs to people with obvious mental problems. There's also a smattering of elderly men and women. Many, but not all, ask for spare change.

Some hold signs that reiterate their plea for money. One young woman, sitting on the sidewalk at the corner of Southwest Fourth Avenue and Morrison Street, recently offered a variation: She cradled a half-grown dog on her lap and held a sign that said, 'Puppy kisses, $1.' Another sign asked for money for dog food.

'I think it's a big social issue,' said Mother Goose's Gillis, adding that the state's still-faltering economy is partly to blame. 'We get hit by any recessions harder and longer. If we could somehow improve the overall economy so there would be jobs for people, that would help.'

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