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Business owners and community see growing problems in Old Town

What we're seeing right now is 18 to20 tents and completely surrounding the (Lan Su) garden."

PORTLAND, Oregon — For the first few weeks of the state's stay at home order, all seemed to be normal in Old Town, a neighborhood in northwest Portland.

There was the usual amount of tents set up on the sidewalk. Those living on the streets keeping close to the services available in the area.

The community has the highest concentration of social services in the city.

Since mid to late April, business owners have seen an increase in the number of tents, trash piling up and violent outbursts.

"I've seen people punching and kicking each other in the middle of the street," said Eric Bowler. He and his wife own five bars in Old Town: Tube, Fortune, Maxwell, Revelry and Century.

"It's pretty disheartening," Bowler said. "We've had to lay off all of our employees."

Plywood has been placed over the windows of Tube along NW 3rd Avenue and an artist painted messages on it to liven things up.

"To make it so it doesn't look like it's shut down for good. Show that we're hopeful and we want to contribute to the neighborhood we can get back to being open again."

Last month the Bowlers went to check on their properties and found that someone had left them a disgusting surprise.

"My wife and I went down there to pick up a couple of things and somebody had pooped in our mail slot into our premises at Tube and then threw in a syringe in on top of it."

Others have complained about rampant drug deals made in the public, violent outbursts and a growing number of tents around businesses.

Outside the Lan Su Garden, interim Executive Director Jane DeMarco says they usually see a handful of tents on the outside of the garden, but never this many.

"What we're seeing right now is 18-20 tents and completely surrounding the garden," DeMarco said.

She says more and more tents are popping up towards the entrance of the garden, which has been closed since mid-March.

"What we're finding is that people are wanting to put their tents in our beds between the gardens and the sidewalks," DeMarco said, "We are truly thinking that when we do reopen, we're going to need a little lead time to clean out the beds and replant them and wash the sidewalks."

DeMarco remains hopeful that she will be able to reopen the garden in late June or July whenever the county and state allow it. DeMarco says staff are working on a plan to allow around 30 or so visitors in the garden every hour and only by reservation. First, she needs to make sure her visitors and employees feel safe.

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"It's going to be hard to get to semi-normal without asking our tented neighbors to go someplace else."

That's what Helen Ying, the chair of the Old Town Community Association has been hearing for weeks.

Multiple business owners and residents complaining about the lack of police in the area, the increased amount of trash and trouble that had been piling up.

"On the streets, there were tents and tents everywhere. We actually had someone count them for us and there were over 100 tents on the streets," Ying said.

Ying wrote a letter to the city addressing these issues and asked for help from Portland Police.

"I gave them some suggestions as well. It's not that I was like complaint, complaint, complaint, right," Ying told KGW, "Here is what's going on and here's what we're recommending for your help."

Portland Police have said they will step up patrols and increase their physical presence in Old Town.

"There have been rumors about the police coming out and doing sweeps, that is not at all what this is," Lt. Tina Jones with the Portland Police Bureau said, "This is about livability, both for business owners, residents in the community and when I say residents I also include those who are houseless and those that live in this area."

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Ying says she's heard from a business owner that said the extra patrols seemed to be working in the few days since they began.

Moving forward, Ying says she and other community leaders, the city, police and social service representatives will hold a meeting to come up with solutions to address the homeless issues in Old Town as well as keeping public safety at the forefront for when businesses are able to reopen.

"For right now we want to at least have the concerns, the public safety piece to be addressed number one because we're hearing from residents, we're hearing from the businesses that they feel unsafe. We don't want that. We know until there's a place for these people are living in tents to go and shelter in place safely, we can't just tell them to move somewhere else, we want them to practice social distancing from each other. We want them to be safe as well."

KGW sent an e-mail to Mayor Wheeler's spokesperson asking for a response from the mayor and has not heard back.

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