The Elephant in the City

“Those faces you see every day on the streets were not created entirely without hope: be kind to them.” – Charles Bukowski

This city is so full of suffering. It’s a huge problem in Portland, if you didn’t already know that. I described it elsewhere as “a tightly closed fist of pain”; a place where pain is densely concentrated. On a molecular level, pain is pain. Much like water, it comes in drops, rivulets, torrents, and everything along that entire spectrum.

Portland isn’t really that big. The population of Albuquerque is half a million, and Portland is only about 150k more. It feels like a far more sophisticated city than Albuquerque, though, with its high rise buildings and solid foundations as a bustling port town. It has a point in existing, where Albuquerque exists in spite of itself, in a location where really no city should thrive. Much like Phoenix, Albuquerque feels contrived, like a bold middle finger thrown up at nature and disguised as man’s triumph. Portland has a reason to be where it is, and feels more European in the design of its structures and the slightly screwy layout that’s dictated in part by the flow of the Willamette River.

Portland is also a decidedly liberal city, politically, left-leaning to the point of tipping over the left edge of the country. This may be why, according to one article I read, police have little power, and almost no resources or guidance to deal with the problems at hand, which include rampant drug addiction and mental illness. I admittedly have limited experience with the police in Portland, but the officers who helped me when my car was stolen (by drug addicts) were compassionate people and also left-leaning. The policeman who let me sit in his patrol car while we waited for the tow truck told me about his frustrations with the “house less” problem. He felt strongly that he had no backup from the city council, that police were hamstrung in their duties by an overly accepting attitude toward hard drug use, that funding toward training police to better handle situations involving mentally ill individuals was completely lacking. De-fund the police, indeed. Who else wants to do the dirty work?

I just read an article (cited below) that addressed the issue of heroin and meth use among homeless (un-housed? Houseless? I’ve heard all of these terms), saying that the inability of police to arrest someone on drugs or in possession of drugs in Portland “isn’t humane. It’s a gross governmental dereliction of duty. Resolving the homelessness crisis requires us to acknowledge the humanity of those afflicted. They are not human refuse; they are people, albeit badly broken.”

But what I hear most often from locals is talk about the tent camps, and the garbage, and the smell, and the rats. These things are patently obvious, but dispersing tent camps is a temporary solution. When I first moved into my new apartment, the area across the street was absolutely sparkling clean. Now it sports a tent camp, the trash cans are overflowing everywhere, and there are needles and vomit and human feces on the sidewalks and in the North Park Blocks on a daily basis. This will persist until enough complaints are received, then the police will come and disperse everyone, and the problem will be “solved” for a bit. I witness on a daily basis the changing nature of the tent camps. When I first moved here, I could run down Davis Street to the river without impediments of any kind, now that street is crowded with tents. When I first moved here, one block over on Everett was the street to avoid, now it’s relatively clear sailing for a runner.

The camps aren’t the problem. PEOPLE are the problem. Both the homeless people and the people tasked with “dealing” with them. I read another article (also cited below) in which Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler is quoted as saying that the homelessness crisis has hurt the city’s “brand.” It’s not about how it looks. It’s about how people are cared for. It’s so surprising to me that people here have become so jaded by the situation that they just want shit cleaned up, not solved.

The same article cited above offered some solutions, including offering enough emergency shelter space that anyone can have shelter, in exchange for homeless people being legally bound to vacate public spaces when shelter space is available. That’s great, too, but I think the author left out one very important note: those emergency shelters have to be SAFE. One of the primary reasons that people don’t go to shelters is because they feel unsafe in those places. The likelihood that they may be robbed or attacked is fairly high. Given the number of times I’ve been awakened in my 3rd floor apartment at all hours of the night by wailing and screaming on the street, mostly by single individuals railing at their own demons, I can say that if I were a homeless mother with small children, I would not want to be housed with an individual with those problems.

Maybe that’s how the police force would be best applied, with lots of training regarding compassion and mental health issues. Still, one size does not fit all. If I were a single woman in a bad situation, I might feel far safer on my own in a tent than in a shelter with lots of other women, some of whom have problems with drugs and/or mental stability. If this city is going to throw money at the problem (and it has), maybe the attention needs to be toward diversity of solutions, like smaller housing situations aimed at more specific groups of people. Single women, for example. People of all genders and sexual orientation, for another. Older men. Older women. Kids.

Don’t concentrate these people, either. Distribute them throughout the city in smaller homes. People who are in pain need a place to be quiet, to decompress, to have their load lightened for a time. I hear the people who are yelling. I hear what they’re saying. They’re railing against their existence on the outside in a desperate expression of fear, frustration, anger, and despair. Some people might need to lose their freedom while solutions are found for them. Lumping people together in mass quantities presents huge risks, especially when some people aren’t lost, they just need rehab or a helping hand. We have to start treating people on an individual basis. Can’t we get some real psychiatrists to do some volunteer work instead of just woefully underpaid public servant counselors?

So that’s the elephant in my city, the city I am coming to love greatly. There are so many beautiful and brilliant things about this place. I just wish she could help herself and her people. I also wish I knew how I could best be part of a solution.

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