PORTLAND, Ore. — The smell of urine permeates the pavement. Piles of trash and rows of tents cover the sidewalks. On the corner of Northwest Flanders Street in Old Town, the hot August sun beats down on Lena Son as she picks up pieces of litter.
"I've been doing Old Town for like two weeks now," Son said as she gently dropped a syringe needle into a plastic safety box on her cart. She works for the Downtown Clean & Safe Program, keeping the streets free from waste and helping those who live on them.
She described Old Town as her "craziest" route.
"More dirty, more people, more homeless people," she said.
For Son, it's easy to work with those experiencing homelessness because she once lived on the streets: "I got a bad background; I got a bad past and I couldn’t find work anywhere."
Now, she uses this job to make a difference.
"I know I made a mess too, and now I feel like I’m able to help clean up people’s camps and stuff," Son said. "I just helped a guy right now looking for the Blanchet House and he couldn't read a map."
Those living in tents along Northwest Flanders appreciate the work Son and the rest of the Clean & Safe crews are doing.
"I've seen them doing a good job. I think they need to stay around," said Tracey.
"They help me, then I got to do the same thing too," added Drake.
As the Portland Police Bureau struggles with severe staffing shortages, these Clean & Safe crews are stepping up to help. That includes extended hours and a new safety number you can call. They are also aiming to work the streets 24/7, especially in the early morning hours, a challenging time for Portland police to staff.
"We're serving as a triage for a very understaffed police bureau in a challenging time," said Mark Wells, Clean & Safe's executive director.
If you're in downtown, you can now call them at 503-388-3888 for non-emergency security issues, such as people sleeping in doorways or disrupting businesses.
"It's building rapport, treating people with respect, saying, 'Hey, would you mind moving a couple feet from the doorway?'" Wells said. "Of course, if those situations do escalate, that's why we have a partnership with the police bureau."
However, oftentimes these Clean & Safe workers find themselves at risk as well.
"I got attacked once. This guy threw a bag of cereal at me and then got in my face," Son said. "One of my coworkers got attacked too. He was sitting on his break and he got socked five times in the face."
When it gets dangerous, they call police and ask you to do the same.
"Walk away from the scene and call dispatch," Son said.
For emergencies, call 911 for an immediate response and call Clean & Safe after you've confirmed an officer is on the way.