After 32 years, Robert Proctor and his wife, Jocelyn, had gotten used to the “travelers”—the influx of homeless people who gathered each summer near their home next to the CD Gamexchange on Southeast 36th Avenue, just off Hawthorne Boulevard.
But four years ago, the numbers of homeless started to grow. They camped across the street from the Proctors’ house, and crowds of 10 to 15 grew to 30—gatherings so large they blocked passersby. Proctor watched drug deals from his porch and shoveled human feces from his yard.
“We wanted to move,” he says. “Screaming and fighting with these people was stressing me out.”
This year is different—the numbers of homeless are down and the tensions have eased. Proctor sees it. So do other neighbors, Hawthorne business owners and even street people who frequent the area.
They credit the change to a shift in tactics by Portland police, who this summer have gotten out of their patrol cars and increased walking patrols along Hawthorne and adjacent streets.
“I don’t think it’s ever been this peaceful,” Proctor says.
Business owners say they no longer find people sleeping on their doorsteps when they open in the morning. The street musicians and people selling jewelry on the sidewalk are still there, but most drug dealers and aggressive panhandlers have moved along.
“There are people outside right now, and that’s totally fine—it kind of adds to the color of the street,” says Miranda Levin, owner of gift boutique Memento PDX and vice president of the Hawthorne Boulevard Business Association. “The people that just kind of disappeared were the ones really causing problems.”
The Portland Police Bureau says it hasn’t yet compiled statistics showing whether the crime rate has actually decreased along Hawthorne. Bureau officials say they believe there have been fewer police calls since the patrols started.
“This has taken a lot of emotional investment that we’re accustomed to resist,” says Sgt. Ric DeLand, who oversees the effort. “My team is exhausted. At the same time, nobody wants it to end.”
If true, the changes along Hawthorne represent a rare success for Mayor Charlie Hales’ approach to homelessness and changing the tactics of Portland police.
As a mayoral candidate, Hales talked about a return to community policing, which puts officers in more direct contact with citizens. Some officers said what Hales promised was not that different from the way cops already operated.
And last summer, Hales launched an aggressive sweep of homeless people from in front of City Hall, off of downtown sidewalks, from under overpasses, and out of city parks.
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch says he hasn’t heard about the bureau’s efforts to change its tactics along Hawthorne.
“It would be nice if what you’re saying is true. Our experience is that these kinds of things target people who are vulnerable, like poor people or people of color,” Handelman says. “Usually, when something like this happens, we get calls and complaints.”
Central Precinct Commander Bob Day says he saw Portland’s sense of security plummet last year after a number of attacks credited to summer travelers—including a highly publicized incident in July in which a 70-year-old employee of the Portland Outdoor Store on Southwest Broadway was clobbered over the head with a skateboard.
“The perception was that we were really off the hook on a lot of problems,” Day says.
This summer, five two-officer teams worked the areas of Southwest 3rd Avenue and Oak Street, and along Hawthorne between Southeast 21st and 50th avenues.
The strategy, Day says, was fewer arrests and tickets, and more effort to talk to travelers and street people, and to connect them with services. As a result, he says, officers have reduced the antagonism between travelers, businesses and homeowners.
DeLand says it was also an effort to put aside policing tactics that officers knew were pointless.
“Getting a ticket is not a significant moment in their life,” DeLand says. “We’ve worn out the power of that tool.”
On a recent visit to Hawthorne, DeLand points to a literal wall—“that used to be called ‘Drinkers Wall’”—between Oasis Cafe and the Gold Door Jewelry, where drunken people routinely gathered. Now, aside from some teenage girls huddled around a cellphone, there’s no one there.
The officers working Hawthorne have gotten to the point where they have learned the ins and outs of everyday life among many homeless youth and other travelers. While DeLand is sitting at a cafe table outside Starbucks, Officers Jon Richardson and Greg Moore show up and report on the latest news.
They discuss a homeless couple they have not seen before and the theft of one of the travelers’ dogs. Richardson also had an update about two homeless youths they know well.
“Austin’s got a pet squirrel,” Richardson says, “and Troy tried to give himself a brand.”
A few minutes later, the two youths hail DeLand. Austin, without his squirrel, has a pit bull mix named Dune on a rope. DeLand stops to pet the dog before asking Troy about two splotchy, red-brown marks on his upper left arm. Troy explains it’s the first few letters of a burned-on tattoo that will say “LOVE.”
“You don’t approve,” says a young woman standing nearby.
“It’s not that,” DeLand says. “I’m just afraid it will get infected.”
The next day, without police around, Troy is on the corner outside the Bagdad Theater, sitting with his friends and holding a flute.
The 21-year-old says he’s been on the road from Tampa, Fla., for two years and hitched a ride to Portland with some other Floridians he met at a commune in Utah. Troy says he always thought cops were “aggressive, hostile and mean.” But his experience on Hawthorne has changed that.
“I’m used to being worried about the cops, but here I just look forward to seeing them,” Troy says. “They’re literally just here to help people.”
Julius Henagan, 24, says he comes through Portland every summer, camping in parks and hanging out along Hawthorne during the day. He says the problems are caused by other travelers who have heard that Portland is the place to come to get “drunk and rowdy.” It had become so unpleasant for homeless people, he says, that he almost skipped coming to Portland this year.
Police say their effort to get to know individual travelers has allowed many of them to identify which people posed the biggest threat. “When we go out and there’s a problem, everyone is really communicating with us,” Richardson says. “Before, they never would have come to us because they thought we wouldn’t help them or they’d get in trouble.”
Director Dennis Lundberg of Janus Youth Programs says he tends to be wary of police contact with Portland’s homeless youth. After 13 years with the advocacy group, Lundberg says he’s learned cops often don’t have the proper tools or training.
But for the first time, he considers the police “partners.” “It’s unprecedented in my experience,” he adds.
Hales himself toured Hawthorne on Aug. 29, talked to several street people and declared his determination to ensure the program is continued next year. (He also dropped bills into the cups or instrument cases of every street musician he saw.)
Day and DeLand worry money will be the problem going forward. Day says he’s organized these community-policing patrols by shifting officers from other assignments. He’ll do the same next year.
“I’m 100 percent committed,” Day says. “I’m not backing off.”