Portland business owners get up close and personal with one of the city’s most urgent and visible problems.
Just past the ornate Chinatown gate on Northwest Fourth Avenue, inside the spacious Kat+Maouche, vintage Berber rugs sourced from Morocco by the husband-and-wife team of Lotfi Bezzir and Katen Bush layer over clean cement floors.
Intricate patterns and warm colors tempt shoppers to run their fingers and toes through the soft weaves. A North African playlist warbles in the background. Natural light, even on a rainy winter Saturday, pours in through the large glass window facing the street.
While they love their location and the way it straddles Portland’s heritage and its modern energy, Bush and Bezzir have seen a lot through that window — open drug use and dealing, public defecation, fights, vandalism and more. Like many business owners across the state, they face the impact of thousands of people literally living on the street every day.
In a city that prefers its reputation as a mecca for the creative class, a center of sustainable development and an incubator for independent startups, the visible signs of urban camping and the scores of destitute residents gathered on street corners and lying in doorways are unpopular with residents, local government and business owners alike.
A recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates Oregon has more than 13,000 homeless people, and that more than 60% of them are unsheltered (meaning they’re sleeping outside), the second highest percentage after California.
Like many good-hearted citizens, numerous business owners have offered space for shelters, proposals for forward-thinking centers to help homeless people better access services and more.
But spend any time with small business owners on the front lines, and you’ll quickly realize this is a battle with many theaters of action.
Yes, there’s a lack of low-income housing, but the scourge of addiction plays a significant role, as does the challenge of finding and accessing mental health services. And we could use more shelter space — as demonstrated during Portland’s January cold snap, when new mayor Ted Wheeler opened the doors of the Portland Building.
No one is going to solve the homelessness challenge alone, or even in a large group. But block by block, street by street, you’ll find people working to make a difference — and to keep the business community strong.
The window of Kat+Maouche looks out onto what for many people is one of the most visible signs of Portland’s homeless community, the Right 2 Dream Too camp, packed in on the northeast corner of Burnside and Fourth.
While most would call the camp an eyesore standing in the way of the neighborhood’s development, Bush says that for them the camp has been more a part of the solution than the problem.
“R2D2 have been great neighbors to us. They’re on-site 24/7,” she says, and its organizers know the people in the area and don’t hesitate to take action against troublemakers.
Michelle Cardinal agrees that it takes effort from a variety of stakeholders to keep the city clean and safe. A Boston native, Cardinal now calls herself a proud Portland progressive. She built her advertising agency, R2C Group, to a level where it now has about 150 Portland employees spread across four buildings fronting the North Park blocks. The glassed-in main entry, on the street level corner of Northwest Park and Davis, is a warm and welcoming space, but the door is kept locked.
The homeless issue came to a head for Cardinal in the summer of 2015 when, in a short time, the park blocks became an unauthorized, unsupervised and crowded campground. The result was that her employees and customers felt unsafe walking from building to building (the other buildings are on Northwest Flanders and Glisan Streets).
“My employees were hassled,” she says, “and someone tried to take my phone.”
After witnessing open drug use and prostitution, as well as cleaning up feces and piles of trash including condoms and dirty needles, she was fed up and contacted the mayor’s office.
She created a video and presentation that showed in all-too-vivid detail what the neighborhood was witnessing. The city stepped up patrols and shut down camping in the park, she says, but she quickly realized that a one-time amplification of enforcement wasn’t going to be a long-term solution.
Cardinal formed a coalition of about 100 people representing 25 to 30 businesses who work with the police, Park Rangers private security and the Clean & Safe District to address the ongoing concerns — which she expects will heighten again as we move into the warmer-weather months, when the visible homeless population typically spikes.
Most business owners don’t have the time or energy Cardinal has to put into this issue. She’s worked hard to build good relationships with the police and leaders in the homeless community, and she has joined the board of Central City Concern, a nonprofit that works to move people out of homelessness. She calls out executive director Ed Blackburn in particular as someone who educated her on the national issues that have led to homeless camps across the United States.
Her advice for other businesses is to get to know all the players. And “don’t just complain, be a part of a solution.”
Being a part of the solution means digging in to the issues. Jessie Burke, one of the owners of The Society Hotel, which opened in October 2015 on the corner of Northwest Third Avenue and Davis Street. Burke isn’t content to just sit back and run her business. She’s the vice chair of the Old Town Chinatown Community Association and a vocal player in discussions about the change that is impacting the neighborhood.
Burke’s considered approach belies the stereotype of sharp-suited developer looking to shove out the undesirables without a second thought to where they end up. She has degrees in education and public administration and has put a lot of thought into the complexity of the issue.
“I’ve noticed a lot of the conversation around housing and how expensive it is, but there’s not as direct a correlation to homelessness as people think,” she says.
She doesn’t discount the huge jumps in rent (and the recent policy passed by the city of Portland aimed at curbing evictions based on rent hikes), but she thinks that the attention paid to rising housing costs can mask what, to her, are the larger problems of untreated and unmanaged mental illness and addiction.
She calls it the 30-30-30-10 rule, in which about 30% of the homeless population are actually down and out, finding themselves homeless after a job or apartment fell through. Another 30% are heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol, and 30% more struggle with severe mental illness. The remaining 10% are those who prefer to live off the grid for one reason or another.
For every obvious-seeming solution — more permanent housing shelters, for example — she points out the challenges — people need to be clean and sober for shelters, and shelters don’t allow pets. She thinks even calling a place a permanent shelter implies failure.
Ideally, a shelter would be temporary. She’s passionate about the need for bold thinking and new ideas to help address other determinants of homelessness.
Whether due to a fear of targeting, or tagging as a business that is part of the gentrification problem, not every business owner is as forthcoming as Burke. But like Bush, she’s running a destination, not a place that relies on street traffic to keep going.
That’s not to say the issue doesn’t impact her business. The Society’s website talks about the colorful history and present day and its confirmation materials address the neighborhood at least twice prior to a guest’s arrival.
Staff are trained on how and when to deal with homeless neighbors, and have learned when to discern a person just needs a place to sit and drink a cup of water or use the toilet — or when they are agitated and become disruptive, or use the restroom for purposes other than relieving themselves.
RELATED STORY: Homelessness reaches crisis proportions in Eugene
Meanwhile, other developments are moving forward. The solid walls of the Kat+Maouche storefront don’t entirely keep the construction noises at bay from the renovation of the Grove Hotel next door, which began in April.
Longtime Portland residents may find it hard to believe that the once rodent-infested flophouse will be transformed into a nine-story, 113-room boutique hotel, but completion is expected this fall. And the city is yet again trying to find a location for the Right 2 Dream Too camp after a February lawsuit by the Grove Hotel developers demanded the camp be moved. An eviction deadline of April 7 is looming.
The addition of the Grove lodging will also serve a crucial role in that it will be open and staffed 24 hours a day. Bush feels this may help to address one key issue in the neighborhood that drives loitering. The city has designated the heart of Old Town Chinatown an “entertainment district,” which means there are many empty storefronts during the business hours, enabling people to congregate in those doorways.
Other business owners agree there’s no one solution. “We need more shelters and housing,” says R2C Group’s Cardinal, “but it’s a lot more complicated that that.” She calls herself “cautiously hopeful,” about the energy Mayor Wheeler may bring.
“As a business owner, I hope for a strong approach and commitment to policy instead of changing it week to week,” she says. “It’s not realistic to have camps everywhere, but it’s also not realistic to not have shelters in neighborhoods. Solving this requires stepping up and understanding what works, enforcing the laws and providing services.”
Like many who deal with this issue firsthand, Bush thinks it’s important to make a distinction between homelessness and public safety, but she is aware that those concerns blend together in the public’s mind and can keep people away.
The utter lack of housing in Old Town also makes it easier for the city to ignore the problems caused by the homeless in her area, says Bush, pointing out the vast difference in the visibility of the homeless population between Old Town and the Pearl District, just a few blocks west.
Block 33, a surface parking lot on Northwest Fourth Avenue a block north of Burnside, could be a major step toward changing that. The block was purchased last June by Guardian Real Estate Services, which plans to erect a mixed-use retail and apartment building, bringing market rate housing to the neighborhood.
But a larger residential population is no panacea. Todd Putnam has owned Framing Resource on the corner of Southeast 13th and Stark for 17 years. He says he and his eight employees have long faced this issue as homeless campers used to congregate in the abandoned Washington High School building across the street. The area was a magnet for street problems.
“The stuff that used to go on in those bushes was stuff that no one should have to see,” he says.
While development and the newly restored Washington High School have improved the situation, he says homeless people still routinely camp in his doorways and along Southeast 12th Avenue, where the tent sites are hard to distinguish from the piles of garbage that stack up without access to regular refuse removal.
Putnam is sensitive to the fact that development in one area can just push the tent sites elsewhere — and that development spurs parking problems and rent hikes.
“It doesn’t really affect my business that much,” he says. “My customers obviously see the campers, but it doesn’t seem to keep them away. From a business standpoint, I’m more concerned about the lack of parking.”
Solving the homeless crisis can make addressing global warming seem like a simple task. “Complicated” is the word that comes up most frequently when people are talking about how to address the issue in Portland. We need more mixed income housing; proactive mental health services; drug and alcohol treatment that works and is readily available; and shelters to ensure no one else freezes to death on a cold winter night.
It’s tempting to throw up your hands and say “good luck.” But businesses, policymakers and the advocacy community must find a way to come together to address the planning, the funding, the execution and the commitment needed to face the issue rather than just push it off to someone else’s block — or to a future generation. That’s a formula for solving a whole host of Oregon issues — transportation, PERS, taxes.
It’s not going to be easy. But go down and try an Americano at The Society sometime. You may be surprised at what you see: Good and bad.