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Portland is better than this

COURTESY; PORTLAND BUSINESS ALLIANCE - Ty Barker, chair of the Downtown Clean & Safe District, advocates for real change not spare change in dealing with homeless people.
There are few places in the world as beautiful and inviting as Portland during the summer.

It is the best time to showcase our city’s vibrancy, innovation and deep sense of community. Yet with warm weather approaching, we hear that more and more people are actually avoiding some of the city’s best destinations — areas near bridges, in parks and throughout business/shopping districts — because an increase in illegal encampments, panhandling activity and open drug dealing makes them feel unsafe. When federal funding was first cut for homeless programs around 30 years ago, there was no question that local governments took on a daunting problem. Good intentions have been put forth, such as the city’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness. However, all 10 years of that plan have run out and we still have significant numbers of chronically homeless people living on our streets and in our parks and open spaces. We need to provide more emergency and temporary shelters, an area in which the city has fallen short compared to other metro areas. So we continue to ask ourselves how we can address this challenge in a way that makes livability better for all residents and visitors, including those most in need. The root of the answer seems to lie in the city’s priorities.

We hear time and time again that lack of funding is a major barrier to building more shelters and affordable housing options in the region. Certainly there are many competing priorities, but in a $3.5 billion annual city budget surely resources can be found to help those in need and ensure the city is safe and inviting for everyone. In less than a year, Portland will host athletes from more than 200 countries for the Indoor Track and Field competition, with all the attention and fanfare that comes with it. The city should be putting its best face forward, yet we continually hear from recent Portland transplants and visitors who are surprised at the extent of the problems on our streets. Will that be the Portland the world experiences? Or will this opportunity give city leaders incentive to prioritize, break down silos and focus attention on providing safe spaces for everyone, cleaning up used drug paraphernalia in our rivers and streets, and ensuring Portland shines.

We are better than this.

During the past two decades, the Alliance’s flagship program, Downtown Clean & Safe, has partnered successfully with the Portland Police Bureau to provide enhanced security downtown. We have also worked with Central City Concern to employ about 500 formerly homeless individuals and help them move to more productive lives. In addition, over the years Clean & Safe has provided significant resources to bolster emergency shelter, outreach and shower and storage facilities. Most recently, the organization rebooted its “Real Change not Spare Change” campaign to encourage people to support successful social service and outreach programs instead of handing out dollars to people on the street.

Still, the larger problems persist and City Council’s lack of consistent focus on these issues has allowed illegal camping and panhandling to become accepted as the norm. In some of Portland’s most beloved venues, such as Waterfront Park, Eastbank Esplanade and the Springwater Corridor, illegal camps have grown in numbers beyond what has occurred in the past, making those areas feel unsafe. Sadly, for men and women experiencing homelessness, those safety issues are very real and we have seen disturbing incidents of violent crimes perpetuated against some of our most vulnerable people. It’s time to get serious about addressing this long-standing problem that affects every person — residents, visitors, those in need of services — in the city.

In just over a year, the eyes of the world will be on Portland. What will they see?

Members of City Council were elected to make difficult choices such as how to ensure limited resources go where there is a most critical need. If you are concerned about the safety, cleanliness and livability of the city, as well as the needs and safety of people living on the streets, please call or write to Mayor Hales and individual members of City Council at www.portlandoregon.gov to let them know you believe more shelters, storage and other affordable housing options must be a priority in the city’s budget. Let them know you also believe that we are better than this.

Ty Barker is chair of the Downtown Clean & Safe District.