Old Town community calls for more help amid uptick in murders

Published: Apr. 28, 2022 at 6:18 PM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Community leaders and businesses owners in Old Town Chinatown on Thursday gave an update on the progress to revitalize one of Portland’s most troubled districts, while sounding the alarm that more needs to be done by public officials to ensure safety for shop owners, visitors and the hundreds of homeless living on the streets.

“In April alone, almost half of the homicides in Portland, were just in Old Town,” said Jessie Burke, the chair of the Old Town Community Association.

“I feel where we are now is pretty close to bottom,” Burke added later, when asked about the district’s future.

In March, the association announced a 90-day plan to “reset for rebuilding and reopening” Old Town. Now halfway through the timeline, Burke highlighted some of the progress that’s been made, including an aggressive effort to remove graffiti, daily trash cleanups and dedicated workers in Old Town from the Clean and Safe program.

Ian Williams, the owner of Deadstock Coffee Roasters said he used to have a great rapport with the neighborhoods homeless before the pandemic, but the current landscape is totally different.

“It’s really hard to differentiate between who is having a hard time and who is out here to capitalize on what’s going on – the lack of police that we have,” Williams said.

As for the number of tents, the association said over the last month-and-a-half, there’s been a 15 percent reduction – progress toward the original goal of a third fewer of the some 250 tents in the neighborhood.

“We’ve worked with the city’s impact reduction program to move tents from one location to another…but we also see those moving to other neighborhoods, too,” said Steve Wycherley, with Clean and Safe.

“The reality is that, as we do this work, we find ourselves mobilizing resources to provide short-term solutions to long-term problems; we’re not addressing the root problems of the challenges we face,” Whycherley said.

Burke said the new goal is to get everyone off the streets.  “The goal for Old Town, is that we need no human living on the sidewalk,” Burke said. “It is not safe, and I will not pretend that a small decline in tents is improving our safety here.”

“I’m asking with urgency that our leadership at the city and county acknowledge our crisis with more than thoughts and prayers and more than bureaucratic delays,” Burke added. “We need an emergency solution, that will get our most vulnerable off the sidewalks immediately and into some form of shelter because anything is safer than this, and I want those preying on the vulnerable to find Old Town no longer a safe place for their foul play.”

Specifically, Burke called on Multnomah County leader to do more in their role as the city’s local public health authority.

“I am tired of the county getting a pass on this – public health is the county’s responsibility,” Burke said.

Multnomah County officials pushed back on the claims that the county isn’t working toward solutions in Old Town.

Spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti sent FOX 12 a list of projects and programs with county partnership that are offered or opening in Old Town, including assigning a team of two peer-support workers to meal service at the Blanchet House on May 2, contracts with Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon and Cascadia Health to do work in Old Town,

In a statement, Sullivan-Springhetti said in part, “Multnomah County is proceeding in Old Town as promised. It’s a mischaracterization to say we are not doing what we committed to do… In addition, we will open our Behavioral Health Resource Center downtown this fall, providing a day center with peer-led services for neighbors facing chronic homelessness and struggles with behavioral health.”

FOX 12 also reached out to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office for comment but did not hear back.