May 3, 2021

Old Town: As homeless camping increases, business owners and unhoused cry for more help

Under the wail of passing trains, Portland’s Old Town residents and business owners swap stories…

Under the wail of passing trains, Portland’s Old Town residents and business owners swap stories of the latest neighborhood goings on. Their conversations repeat themselves week after week. They fear crime is increasing. They’re bothered by tents lining sidewalks and trash piling up. They’re frustrated that first responders don’t arrive quickly when homeless neighbors experience a mental health crisis. And they worry about the immense task of reopening their businesses after a year of closures.

At first blush, the conversations seem to pit business owners against individuals experiencing homelessness. But in reality, both sides are asking for largely the same help from the city and Multnomah County.

Their top ask is for more mental health care, according to individuals experiencing homelessness, social service providers and local business owners who talked to The Oregonian/OregonLive. Business owners also want set boundaries for where people without homes can pitch tents.

Old Town business owners have repeatedly voiced their pleas in letters to the city asking for help to address what they describe as a “crisis,” said Jessie Burke, chair of the Old Town Community Association and chief executive officer of The Society Hotel. There are many homeless service providers and outreach workers in the area, but they can’t keep up with the ever-increasing need, she said, referring to rows of tents outside many area businesses.

“The only clear (action) that would be any help is to have a clear place where people can camp and where they can’t,” Burke said.

While an official count hasn’t been conducted this year due to risks of spreading coronavirus, experts say homelessness, particularly tent camping, has grown across most parts of the city due to economic instability fueled by the pandemic. Old Town is an extreme microcosm of the city’s larger street camping puzzle, since it has concentrated camping covering more block faces than almost any other residential or retail neighborhood and few green spaces for campers to spread out or hide in, said Scott Kerman, director of Blanchet House, which provides shelter and food in Old Town.

High-density clusters of street campers aren’t just located in the blocks between Old Town’s borders of the Willamette River, the Broadway Bridge, Northwest Broadway and West Burnside Street, however. Large numbers of urban campers can also be found in areas near Portland State University, around Laurelhurst Park and in pockets lining Interstate 5 between the Steel and Burnside bridges just east of the river, among other areas, according to the city’s One Point of Contact Campsite Reports.

In January 2019, the last time Multnomah County conducted an official point-in-time count of homeless residents, just over 2,000 people were found sleeping outdoors — in tents, vehicles or other places not meant for human habitation — on a single night. That represented a 22% increase from 2017.

Beth Epps, chief officer of community solutions at Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, warns that targeted resources such as additional outreach teams shouldn’t be piled into one neighborhood without taking a broader look at the city’s overall needs. She believes part of the reason Old Town is the center of so much conversation is because area business owners are more vocal than people are about the less-visible homelessness in other parts of the city.

“Certainly, we should support the needs of the business alliances and work collaboratively with them, but I don’t think they should drive what needs to happen,” Epps said. As the city and county map out where to provide outreach and connect suffering people with mental health care and alternative housing, she said, “There is a need in Old Town, but it is hard to say if the need is truly more.”

SURVIVING IN OLD TOWN

Evellyn Anderson popped up a tent on the outskirts of Old Town five years ago because the location was near an apartment she lived in as a child and because providers offering free meals, showers, housing referrals and other supportive care operate nearby.

Anderson, who is in her 30s, lives on a sidewalk that abuts a vacant building. It’s an attractive spot, she says, because she likely won’t be bothered. The vacant buildings in this area of Old Town attract less foot traffic and fewer business owners asking her to move her tent elsewhere.

She hears that housed neighbors fear the area because they say homelessness attracts crime. But she is as fearful as they are.

“Because I am a chick, there are people who treat me like I am a prostitute,” she said. “Men drive by and they ask for sexual favors in exchange for money. I get harassed. I think women are just more objectified on the street.”

Tents are a common sight in the Old Town neighborhood in downtown Portland. April 30, 2021. Beth Nakamura/StaffThe Oregonian

Burke, who owns The Society Hotel, a boutique inn, said she believes crime follows vulnerable populations, not necessarily because those individuals are committing crimes, but because they are easy targets for criminals. For instance, she has observed a prostitution ring operate down the block from her hotel week after week.

Since the start of the year, 3% of calls dispatched by 911 in Multnomah County have come from the Old Town neighborhood. Of total calls related to homelessness, which can include wellness checks, 4% have come from Old Town, according to data from the Portland Bureau of Emergency Communications. Old Town accounts for 0.6% of the county’s population and less than 0.01% of its total square-miles.

While there are rules that warn clustering more than eight tents together can trigger city intervention, a man who identified himself as Bear said group camping is what makes him feel safe on the streets. The 47-year-old camps with relatives and friends near Sisters of the Road Café, which provides hot meals. If Bear is startled by a noise outside of his tent, he texts his nephew in the neighboring tent to ask him to assess the situation.

A few blocks away, Anderson feels less safe as a single woman.

“There have been a few times where I wake up from the dead of sleep and someone is unzipping my tent and coming in uninvited,” Anderson said. “I’ve woken up to guys on top of me and that is scary and violating. I have tried to tell police, but they don’t care what I am saying.”

Camper Jessica Chamberlin, 34, says police have also ignored her pleas for help when she told them she felt scared. She said she constantly hears voices, though the voices in her head are often kinder to her than passersby. But she wishes she had a dog for protection.

BUSINESS OWNERS WANT TENTS MOVED

While clusters of yellow, green and red tents line the sidewalks in Old Town, many campers leave enough space between the wall of buildings and their temporary home to allow passersby to walk along sidewalks and access businesses. Many campers say they keep their belongings tucked inside their tents to limit the number of objects that tumble into the walkway.

Many local business owners wish the city would force campers to vacate the areas immediately outside of their shops, though. They envision a sanctioned camping area outside of the Old Town business blocks where people could move to.

Dan Lenzen, who owns Dixie Tavern, said the line of tents near his business jars people’s feeling of safety and cleanliness. Society Hotel owner Burke said she believes a boundary should be drawn around the cluster of open businesses with a rule that would not allow campers to congregate in that area.

Homelessness in Old Town Portland

The scene outside Union Gospel Mission in Old Town during a free lunch service. April 27, 2021. Beth Nakamura/StaffThe Oregonian

“People call and ask if it is safe,” Lenzen said, adding he believes the sight of homelessness discourages people from coming to Old Town.

Tiffany Hammer, who volunteers with Old Town Community Association’s homeless committee, said, “If people are sleeping on the streets because they don’t feel comfortable in the shelters that we have available, then we need to respond to that and provide alternatives like sanctioned camping where people would be interested in going.

Anderson, Chamberlin and Bear – who each keep to their own one-block area of Old Town – all have mixed feelings about sleeping in temporary shelter facilities.

Chamberlin, who suffers from schizophrenia, has no interest in temporary shelter. She wants individual housing, but she doesn’t know how to access affordable housing. Anderson said indoor shelters have caused her extreme anxiety due to prior trauma and she has “woken up screaming in the middle of the night” while staying at those types of facilities. She has also tried the city-sanctioned outdoor tent camps but got kicked out due to what she described as a misunderstanding. Bear said it is too hard for him to sleep next to other people he doesn’t know and prefers wide open spaces to quell his anxieties.

While the three do what they can to survive on the streets, there are immediate needs they wish the city or county would help them meet.

Anderson said the portable toilets that were set up for homeless individuals aren’t usable since they are often filled to the brim and unsanitary. Bear said the commodes are often out of toilet paper as well.

“A lot of girls get (urinary tract infections) out here since there are so few places to relieve yourself,” Anderson said. “There is also a shortage of showers. There are places that offer showers and a portable shower truck that comes by, but those have limited access and hygiene is a daily need not just a weekly need. We need places to do laundry and we need more trash pick-up because the garbage cans spill over.”

Downtown Portland Clean and Safe and Central City Concern collect trash every day but can barely keep up with the need, Burke said.

A BEHAVIORAL HEALTH CRISIS

Tucked under the awning of a vacant storefront on the corner of Northwest Third Avenue and Couch Street, Ryan Berrand sat in the shade on a recent Monday as the afternoon sun warmed the neighborhood. When asked how he decided on Old Town to call home, the 37-year-old said “well, really, the neighborhood just chose me.”

He sleeps across the street from a methadone clinic where he pops in each morning to get his dose of an opioid replacement therapy used to wean people from substance dependence. He then stops by his favorite coffee shop a couple blocks away where he tips $3 each day. He believes if he is kind to others, they will be kind to him.

Berrand camps in Old Town because he badly wants to get clean and housed. He needs to finish the methadone process and hopes to sign a lease on an apartment after that. He even stashed away his stimulus checks to save for a security deposit.

Homelessness in Old Town Portland

Brendan Flaeschel says he’s been living outside in Portland for ten years. He is from Midville, Texas. Here, Flaeschel waits in line for food at Union Gospel Mission in Old Town. April 27, 2021. Beth Nakamura/StaffThe Oregonian

He is on a waitlist for a short-term residential program at Transition Projects, one of the largest housing service providers in Portland, where he checks in to its resource center in Old Town once a week to say hello. Each week they give him a number that indicates how many people are in line ahead of him. If he can’t check in for a few weeks, he will fall off the waitlist, but staff at Transition Projects add him back once he checks in again.

He described the constant wait and the juggle to make it to the resource center each week as “disheartening.”

In the meantime, he curls up on the sidewalk to sleep each night.

“I would be interested in going to shelter or a tiny home, but I didn’t know it was available to me,” he said. “I thought the ones nearby were full.”

While Berrand benefits from the methadone clinic, he wishes he could also get counseling to treat his depression. His younger brother died a year ago and he hasn’t figured out how to address “the pretty sad feelings” that have plagued him since.

Local nonprofits and businesses also say broader behavioral health services are needed in the neighborhood.

“What I think you see in Old Town, because it is more consolidated, is that the mental health challenges that many houseless individuals are facing are magnified,” Kerman, the Blanchet House director, said.

Kerman said his nonprofit that has long fed people in need plans to muscle up the behavioral health skills among their staff to respond to the growing need of their clients. While the organization currently has peer support specialists that help diffuse tense situations, Kerman is counting down the days to when Portland Street Response, a new city non-police program which provides crisis care in the Lents neighborhood of outer Southeast Portland, will expand coverage to Old Town.

On Tuesday, a man who often receives free lunch at Union Gospel Mission experienced a mental health crisis, acting out violently as he became frustrated. Workers with no psychiatric training are often on the frontlines of responding to these crises, Kerman said. In other instances, women are often seen walking the streets unclothed, increasing their vulnerability, Hammer said.

Portland Street Response plans to offer services city wide in March 2022, but the team does not plan to expand to individual neighborhoods before then, said public information officer Caryn Brooks. The expansion could be in question, though, because Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler’s budget proposal released Thursday did not include funding to expand the program.

Epps, the chief of solutions at Cascadia Behavioral Health, said her nonprofit is actively working with Portland Street Response to coordinate overlapping services and identify where true gaps are.

“We have a good number of mental health clinics in the county, but what is missing often are services for people who a clinic isn’t going to work for,” Epps said. “We also have small specialty outreach teams for very specific populations that are awesome, but we need to be able to get that structure of service to all who need it.”

There are teams of caseworkers that canvass the streets from organizations like Cascadia, among others. But many who are living on the streets say they either have never encountered a caseworker or it has been a while since they have seen them. Local nonprofits echo the same sentiment.

“We know there are organizations with caseworkers that work in Old Town,” Kerman said. “But we don’t see much of it down where we are. We need more of it.”

Nicole Hayden writes about homelessness for The Oregonian|OregonLive. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.