City Commissioner Nick Fish had been told about increasingly aggressive street people under the I-405 freeway, but seeing is believing.
After a walking tour between Northwest Johnson and Lovejoy Saturday, Oct. 4, and talking to affected neighbors, he characterized the problem as “less about homelessness, and more about illegal behavior.”
He called then Portland Police Chief Mike Reese and triggered a multi-agency mission that completely cleared the area of campers, waste, syringes and stolen property by the end of the weekend.
“This is the first time in 30 years that my street has been clean and safe and free of needles,” said Joyce Vowell, who lives and operates a business on Northwest 16th Avenue across from the heart of the problem area.
Vowell, who became the featured source in a lengthy KGW news segment, described drugs cooking every morning, open dealing, stolen property, harassment of pedestrians, 18 makeshift shelters and tents covering the grass and sidewalks, and garbage everywhere.
“I’ve had to clean up any manner of human waste and anything else you can imagine,” said Vowell. “I’ve seen them drop their pants and just use the bathroom right here on the sidewalk.”
Before the all-out cleanup mission, she said the situation was “the worst it’s ever been.”
The KGW segment included a videotape made by her brother showing a man injecting himself in the leg after doing the same to a woman’s neck.
Fish’s tour came at the invitation of Al Solheim, who rents the two blocks under the freeway between Johnson and Lovejoy for commercial parking. Solheim was pleased with the prompt attention from City Hall, but he’s under no illusion that the effects will be permanent. Two weeks after the cleanup, several campers had returned.
Solheim thought he had made a breakthrough two years ago when the firm he hired, Pacific Patrol, had remarkable success removing encampments and persuading trespassers to move along.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled,” he said at the time. “A more comprehensive approach seems to have been successful.”
Now he isn’t sure of anything.
Although he kept Pacific Patrol on the job, their politely persistent tactics stopped working. Solheim said the current band defies anything less than police action. They have threatened at least two people he knows of with knives.
“It’s a war down there,” he said. “In the last six months or year, the more passive homeless have been replaced by people with an aggressive lifestyle who are very difficult to work with.
“It was really out of control a couple of weeks ago. It was by far the worst it’s ever been.”
Solheim believes more police resources would help. Assistance to those unable to find housing is also needed. But there are too many subsets of the homeless population to believe that more housing is the remedy for all.
“I’m a pretty sympathetic, liberal guy,” he said. “But this is a different problem in my opinion.”
Fish’s Oct. 4 tour included background commentary by volunteers dutifully tending the community garden amid all the chaos between Johnson and Kearney.
Mary Anne Pastene, who heads the garden project, said the three other volunteer gardeners work as a group because they don’t feel safe alone.
“It used to be a very nice place,” she said, noting that nearby workers would come there for lunch, but that seldom happens now.
One day they picked up about 20 needles in the garden. People unload used mattresses for the campers. The shelters grow so elaborate she can’t even tell if someone is inside.
After the television crew left, the weekend “festivities” under the freeway continued. Bill Dolan, chair of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association Livability and Safety Committee, saw what he believed to be stolen bicycle parts as he was walking under the freeway. As he was calling the police on his cell phone, he was confronted by a man gripping a knife and demanding that he hang up. The police responded quickly and arrested the man, who had a criminal record.
In another incident under the freeway that weekend, a man maced another, bringing out police cars once again.
Dolan is helping organize a citizen patrol to provide ongoing oversight of this and other parts of the Pearl District. Central Precinct Commander Robert Day promised Fish that he was beefing up police patrols and homeless outreach in the area.
Vowell is also doing her part, networking with neighbors, taking pictures, posting homemade signs warning campers to move out and calling the police. She won’t have her front row seat much longer, however. She’s selling her property and moving to Oklahoma next spring.■