Nonprofits team up for new Portland program aimed at reducing violence in houseless community

Published: Apr. 12, 2022 at 7:50 PM PDT
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PORTLAND, Ore. (KPTV) - When it comes to violence on the streets of Portland, those who live out here undoubtedly know it best.

“I’ve seen people get mugged over there, beat up, kicked, all the time,” Jeremy Heard, 50, said. “But you know, what can you do?”

Heard said he’s been camping in Portland for four and a half years. He has just about seen it all and been a victim too.

“This one guy attacked me with a mag flashlight, and I ended up in the hospital over there at Adventist,” he said.

But over the last year, the threat of violence feels higher than ever.

“I didn’t hear any gunshots, but I came out of my tent and saw it all blocked off and all the cars,” Heard said. “Somebody told me somebody got shot over there. Some girl got shot.”

Jennifer Drain, 33, a houseless woman was shot and killed just last week. She is one of just one of several campers killed this year, and many more hurt, in shootings.

The Portland Police Bureau and houseless advocates said it’s a growing and alarming trend, but not one that officers track.

Instead, PPB estimates that between 25% to 50% of shootings in the city are related to the houseless community. This makes it perhaps the single largest factor in the city’s gun violence crisis.

“We’ve had two meal guests murdered in two months,” Scott Kerman, executive director of the Blanchet House, said. “These are people that we knew.”

The Blanchet House is a nonprofit that helps people experiencing homelessness with meals, housing and programs for a fresh start.

“This is heartbreaking, but the violence and the danger these people are living in is not a new crisis,” Kerman said.

Kerman said the threats that houseless individuals face are many and multifaceted. They can include weather, health conditions, addiction, mental illness. Add a pandemic on top and people are over the edge in suffering.

“The tension is about as high as it can be on the street right now,” he said.

That’s why the Blanchet House is partnering with the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon and other nonprofits. They are launching a new, county-funded program designed to help engage with houseless community members in Old Town and deescalate potentially violent encounters.

The program right now is hiring peer-support specialists who will work in pairs, on-site at service providers. They will build connections and serve as an extra layer of support and safety.

“They can see somebody come in for a meal and they know this person,” Kerman said. “They can sort of see them, engage and know, ‘Oh I see how this person is feeling today. Maybe I can do something to help them get served.’”

A pilot of the program has been up and running a year now. They hope to officially launch it in the coming weeks.

Heard said everyday is a fight for survival where street smarts go along way.

“You pretty much just watch your back and try not to say the wrong things at the wrong time,” he said.

FOX 12 is told PPB is looking at ways they might start tracking some of this data and working with city leaders to help address the issue.