Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler sat before a room of fed-up business owners on the city’s Central Eastside Tuesday evening. They wanted city leaders to tackle what they see as a public safety crisis — often tied to homeless camps — that endangers their workers and their operations.
Some, such as Revant Optics owner Jason Bolt and Salt & Straw CEO Kim Malek, had already threatened to leave the area. Others asked the mayor why they should stay.
“We deal with break-ins, we deal with assaults,” said Darren Marshall, the CEO of Smith Teamaker. “This afternoon we had an explosion around the corner from us. Fire everywhere. That’s the world that we live in every day.”
So, the mayor promised action, including more law enforcement and — potentially — more sweeps of homeless camps.
Wheeler said the city would implement a so-called “90-day reset” in the largely industrial area, modeled after a strategy employed in Old Town earlier this year.
That plan, developed with the Old Town Community Association, was a metrics-driven approach to cracking down on street crime, trash and unauthorized tent camping. It identified measurable goals — from increasing the brightness of lamp posts to decreasing tent camping by 33% — and focused city resources on achieving them.
Wheeler said his office would work with the Central Eastside Industrial Council to develop a similar plan.
“We’re gonna put in the 90-day plan. We’re gonna increase the police presence. We’re gonna continue to focus on addressing homelessness in this part of the city,” the mayor told the assembled employers. “And I hope that over a period of some time you will see the improvement and your employees will see the improvement.”
Wheeler said Old Town’s 90-day reset reduced drug offenses and vandalism in the neighborhood. And he said the removal of “problematic camps” increased 450% in May 2022 compared to a year earlier.
Advocates for Portlanders experiencing homelessness criticized those increased sweeps at the time. Kaia Sand, the executive director of Street Roots, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night. But she wrote in June, “What might look like progress is actually a dizzying display of displacement that, ultimately, compounds problems. It’s hard not to feel exasperated at the shortsightedness, at best, and cruelty, at worst.”
Portland’s city council voted earlier in November to eventually ban unsanctioned camping and force houseless residents into large city-run encampments that have yet to be built. Outgoing commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty alone opposed the camping ban, calling it “cruel and inhumane.”
And while business owners on the Central Eastside voiced support for the mayor’s larger plan, some questioned the effectiveness — and cost — of sweeps in the meantime.
Kyle Ranson, the owner of outdoor apparel company Showers Pass, said that after a large homeless encampment under the nearby highway was cleared, its residents set up camp at his door. Driving by you can see several RVs anchor one camp next to his building. Another encampment bookends the block.
“We now can’t even get a delivery into our building,” Ranson told Wheeler, visibly frustrated. He said a potential multi-million-dollar investor from Asia visited the site “and said, ‘yes, we want to invest in your business. We are not investing it in this location.’ Because the building was surrounded by homeless camps.”
Wheeler acknowledged that many unhoused residents simply move to another block when their camps are cleared — precisely the kind of repeat displacement homeless advocates decry. Without addressing how that dynamic could affect a 90-day reset plan, the mayor pivoted. This was why, he said, he had decided to ban unsanctioned camping citywide.