Portland residents, business owners want city officials to 'fix' homeless problem

In the summer of 2019, Fox News embarked on an ambitious project to chronicle the toll progressive policies have had on the homeless crisis in four West Coast cities: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland, Ore. In each city, we saw a lack of safety, sanitation and civility. Residents, the homeless and advocates say they've lost faith in their elected officials' ability to solve the issue. Most of the cities have thrown hundreds of millions of dollars at the problem only to watch it get worse. This is what we saw in Portland. 

He doesn't know his name and the layers of dirty clothes he's wearing hang awkwardly off his body. Disheveled and scruffy, the man, who looks like he could be in his 60s, spends most of the day shuffling around the city. He walks up to a woman holding a styrofoam to-go box, snatches it from her and throws it on the ground, spilling bits of rice, chicken and peas on the sidewalk. He laughs for a second but his mood quickly turns. He spots a city worker with a broom and shouts the N-word at him before demanding he cleans up the mess.

"He's out of his mind," the worker told Fox News, with a sigh. "Watch. He'll do it again. He does it every 15 minutes."

A review of arrest data by The Oregonian found that 52 percent of arrests made by Portland Police last year involved a homeless individual.

A review of arrest data by The Oregonian found that 52 percent of arrests made by Portland Police last year involved a homeless individual. (FOX12)

Like Los Angeles and San Francisco, this smaller city to the north has been struggling with a growing homeless crisis that ranks among the worst in the country. Conditions on the ground have gotten so bad that it's hardening even the most liberal of bleeding hearts.

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Shannon, who has grown up in the city, works at a bagel shop on the edge of Chinatown and says while she feels for those suffering on the street, sometimes it's easier to look away.

"I put blinders on a lot," she told Fox News. "Like tunnel vision. I choose not to acknowledge it."

"I put blinders on a lot. Like tunnel vision. I choose not to acknowledge it."

— Shannon, Portland resident 

Portland’s metropolitan area has swollen to 2.4 million people, a far cry in both size and culture from the rough-and-tumble, river-port boomtown settled by 19th Century lumberjacks and longshoremen. In recent decades, Portland's embrace of progressive politics and hipster crunchiness has earned it praise, as well as gentle mockery as the Pacific Northwest’s capital of ‘wokeness’ on the TV series Portlandia. In recent weeks, Portland has seen the dark side of political activism, hosting a pair of violent face-offs between Antifa and far-right groups.

Now, rampant homelessness threatens to define Portland, much as it has other West Coast cities where critics say decades of liberal policies, rising housing costs and a generous safety net have created a social problem that can no longer be ignored.

On any given night, thousands of people can be found sleeping on the city's streets. The latest count, released in August, shows that in 2019 more people were sleeping outside in Multnomah County than at any time in the last decade. Of the 2,037 unsheltered people, nearly 80 percent reported having one or more disabilities.

Rachel Solotaroff, president and CEO of the nonprofit Central City Concerns, says the drivers of homelessness in Portland can be broken into two factors.

"The absence of affordable housing, the absence of meaningful wage jobs, structural racism and bias, interaction with the criminal justice system," she told Portland Monthly. "Then there's individual experience, things like serious mental illness, substance use disorder, history of trauma, interaction with the foster care system as a child and low income or poverty. Homelessness is the intersection of those factors."

As the number of homeless has grown, the calls for solutions have intensified. Some residents Fox News spoke to feel as though officials are letting them down and doing a disservice to those who need the most help. They complain the city's response to the crisis has been costly, fragmented and ineffective. They say Portland's policies don't adequately address mental illness and say officials are kidding themselves if they think they can find an easy fix.

"How safe is it to have mentally ill homeless people walking around on the streets?" resident Naomi Oliver asked Fox News. "Is it better to throw them in jail? Isn't that what they are doing now?"

"How safe is it to have mentally ill homeless people walking around on the streets? 

— Naomi Oliver, Portland resident 

According to a June report from Disability Rights Oregon, Portland hospitals have been using trespassing laws to remove homeless people, the mentally ill or both. The report analyzed police data on trespass arrests from the summer of 2017 through the summer of 2018 at six Portland hospitals and found when someone is asked to leave a hospital and they don't, they can be taken to jail. The problem, some say, is that hospitals are calling the cops on homeless people because they don't want to deal with them.

The state has also come under fire in recent years for moving mentally ill patients out of intense treatment centers and into less restrictive care. Progressives have long argued that civil liberties should come first and locking up someone for too long strips them of their basic rights. Critics say moving them out of treatment too soon or without proper follow-up can trigger a backslide which not only puts them in danger of harming themselves, but others as well.

Whether they are mentally ill, addicted to drugs or have fallen on hard times, the number of homeless on the streets of Portland is taking a toll on how residents and visitors view their safety and businesses run their operations.

Businesses in Portland are beginning to consider pulling out of the city due to the homeless population.

Businesses in Portland are beginning to consider pulling out of the city due to the homeless population. (FOX12)

Michael Kirby, manager of the quirky gift shop Boys Fort, estimates his store has taken a 15 percent hit in sales.

"I have had people literally running into my store saying 'I do not feel safe' and that's the thing that flipped my switch," he told Fox News. "Portland needs to fix this."

Earlier this year, Kirby said a homeless drug addict "shot up" outside his store.

"He had a needle in his arm and was passed out," he said. "What could we do? We literally cannot do anything as business owners."

Kirby said calls to officials haven't led to many improvements.

"I think the city, state and county need to work together as a cohesive group," he said. "Right now, it's oil and water and they don't mix."

Dana Highfill, owner of Float North, a flotation therapy center in northeast Portland, told Fox News her store has been vandalized in the past year. There have also been multiple occasions where she's had to clean up human feces and pick up dirty needles. Like Kirby, Highfill says the situation is getting worse and hurting sales.

"It's definitely an enormous problem," she said. "It's a terrible thing for someone from out of town to see. It's not a good face for the city."

"It's a terrible thing for someone from out of town to see. It's not a good face for the city."

— Dana Highfill, owner of Float North

Highfill said she has called the cops numerous times to complain.

"I work really hard and I see people sleeping on the side of the street and it's extremely frustrating to see and I want something to be done right away," she said. "But I see the other side of it, too. What is the most effective way to handle the issue? These are people and I feel like they should be treated as such."

Part of Portland's problem is that elected officials and experts don't see eye to eye. The city's cops, too, have been struggling to define their role as well as how to handle hundreds of complaints.

"The Police Bureau currently does not collect sufficient data to effectively analyze its officers' interactions with people experiencing homelessness," an independent report released in July stated.

One thing is for sure -- the rise in homelessness dominated the 2018 state and local election cycle. Candidates squared off on camping regulations, street cleanups, sit-lie ordinances and whether to use jails as shelters.

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In the past three years, voters in Portland have approved two affordable housing bonds and committed to adding more shelter beds. One of the bond measures would build between 2,400 and 4,000 units of affordable housing in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties for $652.8 million.

Though promising, the moves are by no means a slam dunk. The best residents say they can hope for is trying to prevent the situation from getting worse.