Turner stands by 'cesspool' comment
Last week, the president of the Portland Police Association, Daryl Turner, ignited a firestorm of reaction by calling the city of Portland a "cesspool" in a statement blasting Mayor Ted Wheeler for "failed" homeless policies.
The comment was sparked by Wheeler's openness to an independent investigation after an analysis in The Oregonian found 52 percent of police arrests last year were of people who are transient or homeless — though they make up less than 3 percent of the population.
The flareup comes as Wheeler has been vocally defending the city's approach to homelessness in partnership with Multnomah County.
"Becoming a big city comes with big-city problems," Wheeler said in a statement. "In true Portland fashion, we have come together as a community — service providers, the business community and law enforcement — to address homelessness. Together we are making progress. Further, we all agree that we need to decrease interactions between police and those experiencing homelessness, and increase interactions between service providers and those experiencing homelessness. I urge us all to continue working together to achieve this important goal."
In the days since emailing out his statement on July 16, Turner has not backed down from his inflammatory language. To the Tribune, however, he said his comment was not blaming homeless people, but an underfunded local social service system that does not do enough for people who need help.
He brought the topic back to a favorite one of the police union, its support of a homelessness campus approach similar to one used in San Antonio, Texas, to provide social services — perhaps at the unused and recently resold Wapato jail.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Portland Tribune: What has been the reaction to your public statement of concern about the city and its homelessness?
Daryl Turner: We've gotten a lot of emails, text messages, voicemails as well as the comments we saw in The Oregonian that obviously — and I knew some of this ahead of time — people who live here are frustrated. Business owners are frustrated. People in general are frustrated. People who are experiencing homelessness are frustrated. So, this is not something that's brand-new, this is something that's been going on for a few years.
We want to see policies that are not just half-solutions. We are not saying you can fix this 100 percent. What we're seeing is that right now the problem is not being fixed. It's getting worse.
Tribune: When you talk about solutions, what do you think we should be doing more of that we are not doing now?
Turner: There's multiple ways to get to solutions. Access to housing, especially for displaced families but not just displaced families, for people with disabilities, people with mental illness, people who are experiencing homelessness in general.
We need to enforce the laws, because across the board for everybody, we have to. But with that we need strong and sustainable networks of drug and alcohol treatment, rehab, mental health services, job placement and other social services. And those aren't the policies we have right now.
Tribune: The mayor has been aggressive in talking about his focus on housing and shelters. Are you saying it needs to be a lot more than that? Or a lot less than that?
Turner: City policy right now is a vicious cycle with no off-ramp for the most vulnerable in our community. It's a number of prongs that go to whose job it is to supervise the off-ramp. But the city must re-examine its policies. We can't keep doing what we're doing.
Tribune: Where does the money come from for these enhanced services? Some people have argued that the police bureau shouldn't get more money because it should instead go to services.
Turner: The mayor himself has reported that we have record tax revenues coming into the city. Where are those record tax revenues going? Are they going to breaks for developers who are building in the city? Are we building more affordable housing or are we building a lot of high-end condominiums and homes?
If the city had decided to buy Wapato from the county, in 60 days we could have about 600 beds with the facilities for medical, dental and administrative offices for social services as well as places to shelter and feed 600 people in transitional housing for a period of time, which would take several people off the street and give them the social services in a hub, which is a one-stop social service network.
Tribune: I heard someone say the union is just complaining because it doesn't want its members to be social workers.
Turner: That's not true. We're tired of the constant carousel of people who are not getting the services they need. And they are being put back out on the street again. And not because social services aren't doing their job but the resources just aren't there right now. ... There's this vicious cycle, it just keeps happening. So, imagine a social services hub like Harbor of Hope, which they have in San Antonio, Texas, with wrap-around services. Obviously, it would have to be tailored to fit Portland's needs. Transitional housing, sleep areas, restrooms, showers, peer interaction, socialization, personal storage, connection to mental health and medical services.
Tribune: Some think the police union just wants a jail so they can take homeless people to Wapato and get them off the street.
Turner: We want to be able to get people resources, we want to be able to get them housing, the housing they don't have right now, the transitional housing that they can stay in for a longer period of time than some of the shelters downtown.
It may not be Wapato, it may not be that facility. But I do know that the people who bought Wapato, their dream is to be like the Harbor of Hope in San Antonio. And that's a good start. Obviously, the city and the county would need to step up to make that a possibility, or a reality even.
Tribune: I want to come back to your use of the word "cesspool." Is the Portland Police Association saying that Portland is a cesspool and homeless people are causing that cesspool?
Turner: What I meant by that is if you look at the city 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, maybe even five years ago, Portland was a thriving, vibrant, beautiful city. It was a place where people hoped to move to. It was growing exponentially. And now we are experiencing some problems with people who are experiencing homelessness. They are not the problem. The problem is not having the policies.
This is something we've been hearing for a couple of years. And the word cesspool doesn't mean it's the worst city in the country. What it means is that from what Portland was 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, we are seeing a downhill slide that is unprecedented. We are not blaming it on people who are experiencing homelessness or mental illness or joblessness. We are placing the blame on policies that don't allow people to get the resources that they need to empower them to take over their own lives.
Tribune: Anything else you want to explain about your statement?
Turner: Our rank and file officers and investigators work very hard. And if, in fact, the numbers are correct that in 2017, 52 percent of the people arrested were homeless, that's a failure of policies, that's not a failure of the people who are out there doing the work every day.
I think once we see the policies change, once we see a model like they have in San Antonio with Harbor of Hope, we will see a big turn with that.