Some say homeless young 'families' are harmless; others see menacing gangs

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Jen, here with friend Levi, says most of the street crimes attributed to travelers are committed by a younger generation she calls 'oogles.'Doreen Binder has had it.

The executive director of Bud Clark Commons, which provides a full range of social services to the homeless downtown, is letting it be known that not everybody is welcome at her facility.

The groups Binder is trying to exclude are identifiable, to a point. Travelers, Road Warriors and Rainbow Families are a few of the labels that have been used, without precise definition. Binder and Larry Turner, engagement director for Transition Projects, which runs the day facility at the Commons, say staff there can tell who the troublemakers are, and have asked them to leave.

Most, but not all, are young adults. Most, but not all, travel up and down the West Coast in self-made families that squat on downtown sidewalks and panhandle. Some, but not all, wear Carhartt outer clothing, numerous earrings and their hair in dreadlocks. Some, but not all, travel with a large dog, usually a pit bull, and carry large knives. Some, but not all, according to police, are heavily into marijuana and heroin, in addition to alcohol. Some, but not all, get cited for quality of life crimes in the downtown area.

At the day service center at the Commons, Binder says, some of these young summer travelers, as the police are currently labeling them, menace other clients and have refused to keep their large dogs on leashes.

“They can be very dangerous. These are people who prey on the homeless,” Binder says. In fact, Binder, who has spent decades advocating for the homeless and their rights, says she would like police to treat the travelers as gangs.

“They band together, they take care of each other, they deal drugs, they do the same things other gangs do,” Binder says. “Because they’re white they’re not called gangs.”

Binder isn’t going to get her wish. Portland police Lt. Mike Marshman says it would take a lot of time and money to get the travelers classified as gang members, to little effect. Police gang units would still spend their time on gangs that commit the most violent crimes, Marshman says, and travelers would land toward the bottom of that list.

“Designating these folks into a certain group, I’m not sure how it benefits us, really,” Marshman says.

Yes, Marshman says, the travelers sometimes don’t control their dogs, yes they occasionally panhandle too aggressively, yelling and confronting passers-by who don’t give them money. Yes, they sometimes block the sidewalks around Southwest Third Street and Pioneer Square. In some of those instances police can issue violation citations that Marshman acknowledges mostly get ignored.

Last year Portland police tried a new tactic aimed at making the city a little less comfortable for the travelers, partnering with Multnomah County animal control officers to target the travelers’ unlicensed dogs. Somewhere between 60 to 100 times over the summer, police confronted travelers about their dogs. In about a dozen cases, Marshman says, the owners were cited and officers took the dogs to a county facility in Troutdale.

The travelers responded by getting free temporary animal permits from the county and retrieving their dogs, Marshman says.

“There’s not a lot of tools in our toolbox to address the issue,” Marshman says.

He says that once the travelers settle in for the summer (about 2,000 from May through September), the police get phone calls nearly every day from downtown shop owners lodging complaints. In addition, in a survey of downtown businesses by the Portland Business Alliance, aggressive panhandling and public drinking were the most cited concerns.

Binder has a point, says Dennis Lundberg, who heads social service outreach to homeless youth as director of Willamette Bridge Programs.

“I resonate with the idea that if they weren’t white they’d be identified as a gang. There’s a kernel of truth in that,” Lundberg says.

The problem, he says, is with the young homeless, even those in street families, who aren’t doing anything illegal.

“You can’t paint with broad brush strokes when you’re in the business of serving marginalized vulnerable people,” he says. “Otherwise you end up discriminating against entire swaths of population.”

Meanwhile Larry Turner is trying to help Bud Clark Commons comply with a good neighbor agreement that says the facility won’t lead to deterioration in its surrounding blocks. And he’s drawn his line in the sand, with a bench across Northwest Sixth Avenue from the Commons.

“If you’re associated with that bench, you’re not allowed in,” Turner tells a group of three who have appropriated the bench on a sunny Thursday afternoon. The three, with their Labrador/pit bull mix named Handsome, call themselves a street family and look like travelers. But one of their group, Angela, lives in a Bud Clark Commons apartment.

Hard to pin troublemakers

The discussion that unfolds between Turner and Angela, Richard and Frank illustrates just how hard a job Turner and the city have in trying to pinpoint just who represents problems and how to deal with them. None of this group, Turner says, would be classified as Road Warriors or Rainbow Family. In fact, they are primarily Portland-based.

Turner explains to the three that the bench has consistently been a hangout for street families who deal drugs, drink and act aggressively toward passers-by.

Richard doesn’t think he should be banned from the Commons for sitting on the bench on public property. “I don’t agree we should be kicked out for being on this side of the street,” he says.

Richard admits he has been issued a violation citation by police, a result, he says, of being found in an Old Town rest room with “multiple people.”

He did not attend his community court hearing for the violation. “I didn’t even read it,” Richard says of the citation. “I don’t ever show up for my court dates.” He has spent time in jail on an unnamed felony conviction, Richard says. He says he wouldn’t particularly mind if he were given jail time for ignoring his court dates.

Across Southwest Morrison Street from Pioneer Courthouse Square, an informal family composed of Elizabeth, Tom and a 28-year-old who calls himself Ace sit with their backs against a building alongside pit bull Pucky. Tom, 29, says he’s been on the road for six years. Ace says the three might look like other travelers, but, in fact, they aren’t into drugs or crime.

But looking like other travelers gets the trio hassled by police, Ace says. And Pucky, he adds, is as much about street safety as he is a companion. “When you’re sleeping, dogs keep you safe,” he says.

Ace says last year he was given a citation for smoking weed.

“I didn’t even read it,” he says, explaining that he was leaving Portland to continue his traveling that afternoon. And, Ace says, he has since learned that his failure to appear in court has had no consequences. Police more recently stopped him again and ran his name through their computer, which, he says, reported that he had no outstanding warrants.

Jen, 31, is displaying a cardboard sign that reads, “Your kindness helps us survive,” while sitting on the Southwest Morrison Street sidewalk with Levi and a black lab she says is a certified seizure alert assistance animal. On the road for 16 years, she blames a subgroup called “oogles” for most of the street crime associated with travelers. Oogles, she says, are from a new generation of younger travelers.

“They come out here and wreak havoc and make it very difficult to make money,” Jen says.

Jen says she was once issued a citation by a Portland police officer for drinking alcohol in public. She ignored the summons and left town. She says she has since discovered that her warrant for failure to appear in court has been dropped.

Jen says if the city were ever to figure out a way to change the violation process so that travelers couldn’t get out of community court and community service, most would leave town and not come back. But that wouldn’t be easy.

“Literally, they’d have to arrest them on-site and hold them 24 hours until they go to court the next day,” Jen says.

Brad Popick, owner of Portland Outdoor Store on Southwest Third Avenue, has been locked into battles over a number of summers with street kids who he says have aggressively panhandled and yelled at pedestrians outside his store. This year he and other downtown property owners have found the travelers staying warm overnight in their buildings’ cellars, dogs and all. The travelers, he says, have figured out how to sneak in through street elevator access doors.

Recently, Popick says, he found four young travelers in his cellar who had set up a living area with dog food and beer. Popick agrees he can’t always tell which of the travelers are causing trouble and which are simply homeless youth. What he isn’t uncertain about is that nothing police do appears to act as a deterrent.

“They seriously believe they are outside the law,” Popick says. “They are true anarchists.”

Citations tossed; system broken

In his State of the City address last week, new Mayor Charlie Hales listed among his priorities curbing the aggressive street behavior that has become associated with the summer travelers (that's what the homeless youth call themselves).

According to criminal justice experts across the country and in Portland, if Hales is serious, it will take changes to the local community court system and a political will nobody here has seen fit to display.

Today, the great majority of homeless people never show up for their community court dates after being cited by police for street crime violations. And according to travelers interviewed by the Tribune, they suffer few consequences as a result of failing to appear.

Criminal justice experts are nearly unanimous in their belief that certainty and immediacy of consequences are more important than severity of consequences. Street offenders, they say, need to know that if they urinate in public, or drink in public or trespass, they will see a courtroom quickly, and suffer some consequence nearly immediately.

Yet when a Portland police officer issues a citation, the ticket lists a court date about six weeks in the future. Few homeless people, with complicated lives that often include substance abuse, are capable of making those court dates. That’s why community courts in Hartford, Connecticut, and in San Francisco have worked to shorten the period between citation and court date. In Hartford, police issue a citation and the next morning an officer hand delivers straight to the community court all the previous day’s citations. Each case is heard within 48 hours of the initial police encounter.

“There’s no sane reason in the world it takes two weeks to process an ordinance violation,” says Hartford Community Court Judge Raymond Norko.

In Portland, the police, the district attorney’s office and the court system are locked into an outdated logistical system that would have to change to speed up appearance dates. According to Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Laurie Abraham, all three enter the paperwork for each citation into their own databases. Three weeks will pass before the district attorney’s office sees the paperwork from a police citation. The DA’s office will take a week to complete its paperwork on the citation, and the court administrator will take another week.

“We’re willing to see whether there are ways we can streamline if the police department is willing to streamline,” Abraham says.

Portland police Lt. Mike Marshman says police would like to find a more efficient way of processing case paperwork.

“It’s a train wreck of a system,” Marshman says.

Skipping court

Abraham says at one time city and county officials discussed a system more like that in Hartford. Police could write the bulk of their street citations on Thursday, knowing community court is held on Friday in Old Town. But, she says, the idea died because of the cumbersome data entry systems used — nobody could get paperwork done in time.

Quicker court dates will get more of the homeless to appear, but not all of them. Community court’s appeal is it gives most offenders a choice between a fine, community service or engaging with social services to help get them off the street. Young homeless travelers interviewed by the Tribune consistently say they still wouldn’t attend. They don’t want housing assistance or help with their addictions. And they certainly don’t want to pick up litter as their community service. Norko, in Hartford, has an answer for them.

If somebody fails to appear in Norko’s court, he immediately issues a warrant and police pick the offender up and bring him (or her) to jail. If he can’t post $150 bail, police will keep him in jail and bring him to court the next day. If it’s a weekend, the offender will be held until Monday and then brought to court.

In Hartford, the entire system is set up for quick response. Community court dates are within 48 hours of a citation being issued. Those who skip a court date are arrested within 24 hours. Those who skip their community service are rearrested within two days.

Abraham says in Multnomah County warrants are never issued for failure to appear in court on a violation. Fines can be issued when offenders fail to appear, but homeless travelers say they aren't showing up when their records are checked after police stops.

In addition, jail space is expensive and sometimes in short supply, with even felons occasionally released early in a process called matrixing. Marshman and Abraham agree it is unlikely that jail space here would be used to hold violation offenders.

Still, Norko says there’s no excuse for taking six weeks to bring a homeless offender’s case to court, or for letting offenders, even small-time offenders, ignore the law.

“We practice 20th century law in the 21st century,” Norko says.

Portland’s willingness to ignore offenders failing to appear says more about the city than its homeless, says James Nolan, a Williams College sociology professor who has written two books exploring how community courts and drug courts reflect the culture of their city.

“Inasmuch as a local legal culture determines the form these courts take, this is a classic example,” Nolan says of Portland. “This idea that you can just ignore a citation and not worry about being arrested strikes me as a really unique situation.”

Dennis Lundberg, the city’s point man for dealing with Portland’s homeless youth as director of Willamette Bridge Programs, says quicker court dates and warrants enforced for those who don’t make them would have real impact on Portland’s streets.

“A more efficient system that results in real consequences within 48 hours is probably a good step in the right direction,” says Lundberg. He likes the idea of police taking those who don’t make their community court dates straight to community service.

“That could spread the word among young people that belligerent behavior is no longer tolerated in Portland,” Lundberg says.

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