By: Paolo Rueda
The Pigeon Press (Portland, OR)
It is a January afternoon and Douglas, a bundled-up homeless man wearing large ear muffs, sits down on a bench with his shopping cart filled with clothes and empty pop cans at Laurelhurst Park. An empty sidewalk is lined with tents, old cans, and grimy newspapers. It is 33 degrees. He has been homeless for four years and currently lives in the park. Prior to this, he lived near the waterfront in downtown Portland, a popular area for homeless people.
“I survive by recycling bottles and cans and with that money, I am able to buy food,” Douglas said. “I’m always on the road moving to different places, and in some locations, the city of Portland has provided bathrooms and little shelters to help us. But it’s not enough.”
On any given night, up to 3,800 people sleep on the streets, in shelters or in temporary housing according to the city of Portland. The combination of rising rents and inadequate affordable housing has created an increase in the number of homeless in Portland, as well as deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill. There may also be a perception that more services are offered in Portland than other cities and that the police force is more lax.
“The simple solution to homelessness is housing,” Gary Davis, Executive Director of Operation Nightwatch, who has worked with homeless since 1986, said. “But to provide housing costs money, in Portland’s expensive housing market, a lot of money–and no one seems willing to finance it. Therefore, those without housing have no place to go and they end up in places like Laurelhurst Park.”
According to Davis, Portland has fewer beds for homeless than any other city in the country.
“Not only do we lack sufficient housing, but we also lack such things as adequate mental health services,” he said. “This story goes back 30 years or so when there used to be state mental hospitals to house the indigent mentally ill. When they were closed back then, though, the patients could hardly take care of themselves. They were just dumped on the streets because there was nothing else for them.”
Residents around Laurelhurst Park have mixed opinions regarding their homeless neighbors. Paul DuCommons, who owns a house nearby, thinks that the city needs to improve their approach to homelessness, both in the park and downtown.
“I think that maybe installing portable showers or Porta Potties would be really helpful for a situation like this one,” DuCommons said. “The current strategies that the city of Portland has for homeless, at least in our area, is not working well.”
Last September, multiple homeless were asked to leave Laurelhurst Park due to Sunday Parkways, an event where bicyclists around Portland travel through multiple closed streets. Notices were placed by the police to vacate the park the week before this event.
“The homeless came back after being dismissed,” DuCommons said. “I think the reason for this is that they don’t know where to go.”
Garbage near the homeless camps is a common complaint for residents. Dirty clothing, cardboard boxes, torn books and broken appliances are a frequent sight.
“One of the things the homeless also lack is a proper way to dispose of their waste,” Davis said. “It’s been shown that if things like port-a-potties and trash cans are set out where the homeless are camping, they’ll largely keep their areas clean. They have no desire to live in messes than anyone else. But again, providing such services requires someone paying for them, and no one wants to pick up the bill.”
DuCommons has a similar opinion regarding the city’s responsibility in keeping the park clean of debris.
“I think the city should put some trash cans to keep that area where the homeless stay tidy,” he said. “The debate around our area, as you might know, is that many of the people on this block have younger kids. Some feel that it is unsafe to walk and play in the park.”
Gwynne Skinner, who owns one of the houses overlooking Laurelhurst Park, doesn’t mind people living in the park but has issues with the garbage generated by homeless camps.
“The city needs to come up with a plan to fix this issue, which at the moment in our park is very minor, yet there still needs to be some rules around it,” she said. “I suggest that the city of Portland put food out for them so they don’t starve and that they don’t disrupt the community around them.”
Mark Ross, a media and Personal Relations officer for Portland Parks and Recreation, suggests that the homeless need to be connected to various agencies to help house them.
“Our rangers who encounter people camping in parks try hard to assist them by forming relationships with them and connecting people with resources and agencies such as JOIN,” Ross, said. “That organization exists to support the efforts of homeless individuals and families to transition out of homelessness into permanent housing.”
According to The Oregonian from December 2016, one of the solutions that the city has proposed for helping the homeless crisis is the use of PODS or “Partners on Dwelling” which are 8 x 12 feet miniature sleeping quarters that are easily transportable. The goal is to have 30 clusters of 30 PODS each around the city. The locations for these POD c are yet to be disclosed.
Mike, a homeless man who was walking in the park during the last snow storm, is hopeful for the POD initiative.
“I think that putting little house-like things around the city of Portland is a great idea, but I hope that they will be controlled so that multiple people are allowed to stay in them at a time,” he said. “I also want to make sure they are in a clean and safe environment, where people like me are allowed to use a physical bathroom and shower.”
Another homeless man in Laurelhurst park who chose to be identified as Kentucky recently moved from the east coast to Portland. Even though he has only been here for three months, he feels that the city could do more.
“The rough conditions don’t bother me because I used to live on a farm on the east coast that had way worse conditions than here,” he said. “I have noticed that Portland has put little villages in downtown for people like us to stay, but I feel that these villages/shelters should be put in parks as well.”
Homelessness in the U.S. is a problem that is not going away. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, a quarter of all homeless people are children and 15% of the homeless population is considered chronically homeless or homeless for greater than a year. 13% of the homeless population are veterans.
In Portland, shelters are not keeping up with the demand. Alternative housing solutions are in the works, but not yet a reality. Meanwhile, Douglas continues collecting cans and living in Laurelhurst Park.
“With the can money, I’ll keep livin’ the life, eating my Buffalo Wild Wings and trail mix,” he said.