PORTLAND, Ore. — Mayor Ted Wheeler's office on Thursday announced the beginning of a "90-day reset plan" in Portland's Central Eastside Industrial district, the result of business leaders clamoring for help in late November.
A ramp-up in homelessness, trash and crime have been apparent throughout most of Portland throughout the last several years. People have complained to the city that they have a hard time using the sidewalks, getting to school or getting to work. They're afraid to leave cars parked on the street.
It can be hard pinpoint which area of Portland has it worst at any given time. But it's increasingly clear that — particularly when important local businesses are involved — the squeaky wheel is more likely to get the grease.
Back in November, business leaders in the Central Eastside Industrial district, the area just on the east side of the Willamette, got together to talk about all the things that they've been frustrated with over the past few years. They brought city leaders, including Mayor Wheeler, to listen.
"One of our employees on his way into our central kitchen was held up at gunpoint," said Salt & Straw CEO and co-founder Kim Malek following a series of incidents earlier that month. "A gun in his face as he walked in to make ice cream."
"We deal daily with human feces on our shoes, we deal with break-ins, we deal with assaults,” said Steven Smith Teamaker CEO Darren Marshall.
The listening session impressed upon city leaders that they needed to do something, so they determined to make the Central Eastside the place for Portland's next 90-day reset.
What's in a reset plan?
Soon after the November listening session, the city began clearing camps in the Central Eastside. Wheeler's office said that the city has already removed 125 unsanctioned campsites that "posed a significant threat to public health, public safety or blocked public rights-of-way" and began removing graffiti from the neighborhood.
The plan that started Thursday is wider-reaching and includes about 30 different goals. Those include removing homeless camps by "reducing number of unauthorized tents by 70%," scrubbing down graffiti, improving lighting throughout the neighborhood and removing stolen or abandoned vehicles. It also means an increase in police presence.
"In the next 90 days, we're asking the SSCC to address the unsanctioned campsites, through the legal posting process, that are most impacting the neighborhood," Wheeler said when he announced the plan. "Our outreach teams will be performing additional outreach to posted campsites to ensure that they're aware of our cleanup plans. Those contacted by outreach teams are offered an immediate available shelter bed a ride to that shelter bed with their immediate belongings, and complimentary storage for additional belongings."
Portland launched a similar 90-day reset for the Old Town neighborhood in March 2022, likewise clearing homeless camps and working to clean up graffiti and trash. Most of those results were highly temporary, but some business leaders have said that it helped the neighborhood establish a new baseline. Others weren't convinced that there's been much of a change.
"Maybe they are making an attempt, but I'm not seeing it yet," Earl Reeves, a longtime Old Town resident, told KGW after the reset. "The tents get wiped out — two days later the tents are back."
"We can't walk down the streets, we are unsafe. I've been assaulted on the streets — I don't even call the police," said another man.
"Now I wouldn't go outside at night, period, to cross the street. It's that dangerous," said a woman.
While city officials have indicated that these intensive sweeps sometimes result in connecting people with shelter or services — the city said that the Old Town reset, for example, got 87 people into shelters — there's no doubt that the majority of homeless people who are forced to move simply set up camp somewhere else. Several have told KGW that they were never offered services before being made to relocate.
"We create low-barrier opportunities for people to be able to come inside off the streets from the problematic camps that we are removing," Wheeler continued. "Overwhelmingly, people decline. Two out of 10, according to a recent survey that we did with city outreach workers, said they will not come indoors. And by that I mean shelter, motel rooms, housing of any kind — they prefer to be outside."
Beyond the 90-day horizon
When homeless camps start to accumulate in a new area of the city following sweeps, people in the new area get upset and ask for help from city officials. But the city is not planning to do 90-day resets like these all over town — they'll remain sporadic, and probably based on pressure.
"I wish we could do this for the entirety of the city, and I wish we could do it in the context of the service hubs being live and operational across the city because then everything would flow together," Wheeler said.
"Service hubs" is Portland's label for the large, sanctioned outdoor camps that Wheeler proposed for the city, along with a ban on unsanctioned camping. When Portland City Council adopted the plan, these were envisioned as camps of up to 250 people each.
Wheeler thinks that if the city can get these service hubs open, they'll lead to a reduction in unsanctioned camping.
"People may not want to go to indoor congregate shelter, but we're betting a lot of people, based on what they told us, would go to a different location that is outdoors that has stability, that has hygiene, that has navigation to critical services," he said.
The Mayor couldn't provide any kind of timeline about when these camps will open or where they'll be. He said only that his office would announce some of them "soon."
Portland still has yet to open all of its planned Safe Rest Villages, plans that have been in the works for years. The idea was championed by Commissioner Dan Ryan when he headed the Housing Bureau. He's since been reassigned, though he'll reportedly remain in charge of Safe Rest Villages.