BLOG: Let’s work together to address livability issues

BLOG: Let’s work together to address livability issues

This is the time of year when all eyes turn to our retail business districts.

Downtown, twinkle lights sparkle on more than 700 trees and a tall tree towers over Pioneer Courthouse Square. Holiday shoppers and merry-makers crowd stores decked out in their holiday finest, while also taking advantage of events like holiday sing-alongs and visits from St. Nick and his pals.

Neighborhood business districts are set for the holidays. From St. Johns to Multnomah Village and Lents to Alberta, retailers, restaurateurs and hoteliers have put out their finest to make this the best holiday season ever for Portlanders and visitors alike.

Traditionally, retailers depend on the holiday season more than any other time of the year to make their businesses successful. Black Friday got its name because Thanksgiving weekend traditionally is the time when the balance sheets for many retailers, large and small, cross into the profitable column.

That is why it is important we do everything that we can as a community to support these local businesses by creating an environment where they can thrive. And it is why I am thankful that Mayor Ted Wheeler is taking steps to address the livability issues that are impacting the experiences Portlanders and visitors alike are having downtown and in neighborhoods throughout our city.

Most Portlanders would probably say we have a safe city overall, and surveys of downtown workers and residents support that. Unfortunately, over the past few years, we have seen an increase in instances where “livability” issues have crossed the line into actions that must not be tolerated: open drug use, needles, human waste, illegal camping, garbage, and verbal harassment. These issues have garnered a lot of attention in our Central City - downtown, Old Town/Chinatown and the Central Eastside – but we know they are experienced in neighborhoods throughout Portland.

These livability issues were exacerbated during the last administration at City Hall, when open camping in public spaces was allowed and even encouraged throughout Portland. When Mayor Wheeler took office a year ago, he faced a big problem to fix and he has systematically moved forward to correct issues. Derelict RVs parked along Southeast Foster Road in the Lents neighborhood and other areas were moved along; camp sites have been cleaned up in virtually every corner of Portland at a much faster rate than before, and better effort has been made to engage and coordinate with the state of Oregon to deal with the pervasive issues along highways throughout the metro region.

Then, as the holiday season kicked off last week, the mayor announced an expansion of walking police beats and expanded regulations downtown that will enable our police to engage with people creating livability issues. This community policing practice is an excellent idea, and it is one we hope will soon be extended to neighborhoods throughout the city.

I want to be clear. We are not talking about “criminalizing” homelessness. There are many people on our streets who need services, and we continue to try to help them find safe alternatives to sleeping outside. I commend Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Mayor Wheeler for making huge progress in that regard: In the last 18 months, almost 700 new shelter beds have been added in our community, which means that many individuals and families are no longer sleeping outside. The Alliance has worked closely with the mayor and chair on this effort, and we will continue to do so. We need more emergency beds, more permanent housing and more efforts to help people avoid homelessness in the first place. It will take the entire community to find a long-term and lasting solution to homelessness.

The focus I am talking about is illegal behaviors that impact everyone. Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle captured all of our attention when he spoke out about employees at the Sorel headquarters downtown facing aggressive and downright frightening behaviors while walking downtown. His story isn’t the only one. Every day, we get calls about windows being broken, human waste found in building lobbies, needles dropped in doorways and much more. We need to address these behaviors so that everyone feels comfortable in shopping districts throughout our city – while still leading with compassion as we address homelessness in our community. At the Alliance we believe strongly it is not humane for people to sleep outside.

We are lucky to have leaders in our community who are committed to making a difference. Mayor Wheeler and Chair Kafoury have made tremendous progress in addressing homelessness, but these issues won’t be solved overnight. They also recognize that the livability challenges we hear about so often must be dealt with so that community standards are upheld and Portland feels safe and inviting to everyone. Let’s do what we can to support them.