Needles, trash, graffiti surge in downtown Portland

The rise in centrally located homeless camps has contributed to a spike in trash, needles, graffiti and human waste in Portland's busy downtown core. 

PORTLAND, Ore. – Workers who pick up garbage in downtown Portland saw far more needles, trash, biohazards and graffiti in 2016 compared to 2015, according to new data released by the organization Clean and Safe.

Clean and Safe and another nonprofit cleaning group, Portland Mall Management Inc., pick up garbage in an approximately 3-square-mile area between Portland State University and the Broadway Bridge. They’re funded by downtown businesses and city bureaus, and last year spent a combined $1,803,770 picking up bags of trash, biohazards such as human waste, hypodermic needles and cleaning graffiti in downtown Portland.

Those cleanup efforts increased significantly in 2016 compared to 2015 due to Portland’s growing homeless problem, according to Clean and Safe Executive Director Lynnae Berg.

“We’ve had a big increase in the number of camps that are in the downtown core,” she said. “When we’re asked to clean up a structure or a camp on the sidewalk, there is often a lot of garbage left behind and in many cases needles as well.”

The sheer number of needles, instances of graffiti and biohazards such as human waste, and bags of trash collected in 2015 was notable to begin with. Two years ago, Clean and Safe picked up 32,343 bags of trash and 9,897 needles. There were 41,291 separate reports of biohazards and 29,879 instances of graffiti.

In 2016, those numbers rose to 42,540 bags of trash, 16,882 needles, 52,048 cases of biohazards and 37,265 instances of graffiti.

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Compared year-over-year, graffiti and biohazards both rose about 25 percent, while trash removal grew by 32 percent. Seventy-one percent more needles were picked up on sidewalks and streets in 2016 compared to 2015.

A 71 percent spike in needles may seem shocking, but Berg said no one she works with was surprised.

“I think it’s really a bellwether for where we’re at with our opium epidemic,” she said.

Denis Theriault, spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, said he understands the concerns. 

"Addiction affects people in and out of homelessness, but people who are outside often don't have as many places to store or dispose of their syringes," he said. 

Biohazards are one of the most difficult things for Berg’s crew to clean. Clean and Safe workers ride custom cargo bicycles that pressure-wash streets with special enzymes to clear away human waste.

The amount of garbage and graffiti in downtown Portland is likely even more than the numbers show, since Clean and Safe doesn’t clean city parks.

Mayor Ted Wheeler's spokesman, Michael Cox, said one of the mayor's top priorities is addressing the downtown homeless camping situation, which he called "out of control."

"Downtown is a place for business, workers, tourists and residents. It should be both clean and safe," Cox said. 

A 2015 homeless count found 1,887 homeless people living outside in Portland. The 2017 count took place in February and those numbers have not yet been released, but the Multnomah County Health Department says more people using its needle exchange programs are reporting housing instability or homelessness.  

Some businesses say the homeless issue has impacted their bottom line. The ad agency SQ1, which is located at Southwest 2nd Avenue and Oak Street, said employees have seen people injecting themselves with drugs, having sex and defecating in the parking lot next to the business. 

The exercise studio Nia was located in the historic Pythian Building but shut down in January over safety concerns due to the nearby homeless population.

Berg said businesses in downtown Portland have told her they are unhappy with what they see as a less-clean downtown core. 

“It’s an overall frustration that there are livability issues and we need to find a better answer, because it’s not humane for people to be living outside,” she said.

Reports of biohazards highlight hygiene issues. A Portland State University study found that homeless lack enough places to use the bathroom, take a shower or do laundry -- resulting in unsanitary conditions among campers. The study authors suggested a community hygiene center that is open 24 hours a day. 

“We know that we are not going to solve homelessness soon, and we need to be open to and working towards many solutions,” said Lisa Hawash, assistant professor of practice in PSU's School of Social Work. “We don’t know if anyone will ever fund a hygiene center, but they can’t say they don’t know there’s a need.”

Agencies are working to mitigate some of the issues.

The county health department recently added two needle drop sites along the waterfront. Its needle-exchange service exchanged more than 3 million needles in 2015, which is the most recent data available. The health department reports that they've seen an increase in the program's use since then. 

Clean and Safe has invested half a million dollars in trash compactors they call “Big Bellies,” which can fit nine times as much trash inside compared to a normal trash can.

Berg also hopes the city’s effort to add more shelter beds helps alleviate downtown Portland’s garbage epidemic. She notes the city has added 750 more shelter beds in the past 18 months.

“That’s 750 more people inside,” she said. 

According to Theriault, most of the new shelter space is open 24 hours a day and offers access to showers and bathrooms. 

"We're still working together with businesses and our nonprofit partners to find even more space in the central city, after adding beds in other parts of the county where we've seen need," he said.

Study finds homeless need more hygiene access

Published March 14, 2017

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