A Plan for a New Security Force in the Central Eastside Reveals Fresh Conflicts on the Streets

The decision this month by the City Council will be another benchmark for the city’s approach to homelessness.

A lot of people live in Portland's Central Eastside who weren't there before.

No place in Portland is home to as stark a contrast between an increasingly visible street population and the rising towers of high-end apartments.

Against that backdrop, a neighborhood business group—the Central Eastside Industrial Council—is seeking a traditional response: security guards, like the ones patrolling downtown streets just across the Willamette River. The industrial council wants the Portland City Council to tax the business district and spend part of the money on an unarmed private security force.

The plan has won the support of Mayor Ted Wheeler.

"This effort is a good example of the public-private partnerships the mayor has leveraged throughout his time in office," says spokeswoman Sophia June. "One of the mayor's priorities is creating a clean, safe and livable Portland for everyone. We're working to do this through increased efforts around trash collection, housing, homeless services and public safety."

But the proposal for a private security force, which goes before the City Council on Jan. 30, is setting up a new conflict. A growing opposition says a security-guard response to homelessness is ineffective.

"[One] piece of our broken system is the increased criminalization of the houseless for doing survival-related activities," says Sandra Comstock of Right 2 Survive, a homeless advocacy group leading the opposition to the proposal. "If we have another layer of security and cleanup teams, we're just going to end up with more police calls, more expenditures that don't solve anything."

The decision by the City Council will be another benchmark for the city's approach to homelessness, and will display the council's philosophy on whether added security can address the city's most fraught issue.

It comes after Portland police shot a mentally ill man who had been sleeping in a doorway Jan. 6 until a landlord called police for help. That's set off a fresh debate in Portland over whether more law enforcement is the right response to increasingly visible homelessness.

"If the model we have downtown is expanded to the eastside, then we expect more arrests of people who are houseless," City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty says. "I don't think it's a good idea."

It's hard to overstate the change going on in the Central Eastside—traditionally an industrial district, bounded by Interstate 84 to the north and Southeast Powell Boulevard to the south, the river to the west and Southeast 12th Avenue to the east.

In that 681 acres were just 900 households in 2010. But this has been ground zero for Portland's apartment construction boom. In the past eight years, construction has at least begun on 2,000 new units. By 2035, the city expects 7,900 households here.

But the Central Eastside—with its underpasses, few residents, and little security—has also been where homeless people go when they are rousted out of other neighborhoods.

So the Central Eastside has become the site of increasing friction between new residents, longtime business owners, and people sleeping on the streets.

The proposal for more security guards reflects the approach long taken downtown by the Clean & Safe District, which partners with Portland Business Alliance and hires six to eight guards a shift, some of them armed. (Eastside guards will not be armed.)

Since 2017, the Central Eastside Industrial Council has worked toward creating what's technically called an "enhanced services district," similar to what downtown established for its Clean & Safe District.

The mayor's office described the success of the Clean & Safe program by noting significant statistics related to the cleanup.

"Clean & Safe efforts on the westside have resulted in enormous amounts of trash being picked up," June says. "As of September 2018, Clean & Safe removed 44,568 bags of trash, 27,311 needles, 32,875 pieces of drug paraphernalia, 30,359 graffiti tags and 42,342 biohazards."

The Central Eastside Industrial Council hopes the City Council will approve a plan that charges property owners within the district an extra fee, helping to create a $2.6 million annual budget, including by one estimate $375,000 for security guards.

In August 2018, the industrial council started a more limited security effort policing west Buckman.

The council reports "802 incidences of graffiti, 51 incidences of vandalism, 88 incidents of biohazards and 195 incidents of trash."

"In response to the area's desire for a greater feeling of security, the CEIC has contracted a security team from Northwest Enforcement," reads an item published in The Skanner in 2017 by the council. "They were chosen because of their years of experience working for Central Eastside property owners and their approach to maintaining order while being compassionate, respectful, and helpful to our vulnerable houseless population."

Since then, the group has met with businesses, neighborhood groups and other property owners to pitch the idea of expanding the security detail and funding it through city tax collection.

Not everyone welcomes the effort. The most significant opposition to the proposal comes from Right 2 Survive. It says the plan just scratches the surface of the problem—or may make matters worse.

Already, more than 1 in 10 people living on the streets "are affected by street evictions on a weekly basis," according to Neighbor 2 Neighbor, a  data and policy group co-founded by Comstock.

The group also calculates that city camp cleanups averaged 42 per week in 2018. Before July 2017, camp cleanups averaged far fewer than 20 per week.

Opponents argue that more security would only add to that trend. Instead, Right 2 Survive proposes creating a "Compassionate Change District" in the Central Eastside, with safe camping spots, parking lots for people sleeping in their cars, and better access to hygiene that includes bathroom, shower and laundry facilities at the sleep sites.

Advocates for this approach point to Clean & Safe's own statistics as an indication the effort is failing.

"They're collecting twice the amount of trash and four times the needles—that's sweeping the proverbial problem under the carpet," says Comstock, a former professor of sociology. "Are we going to fix the root of the problems or are we going to paper over things?"

The Central Eastside Industrial Council says it's met with advocates for a Compassionate Change District and will again.

"The CEIC is aware of the proposal. We advocate for a compassionate approach as well," says Kate Merrill, executive director of the industrial council, "and look forward to continuing the dialogue."

The competing plans will be weighed by a new City Council—with Wheeler on board and Commissioner Nick Fish likely favoring the plan. Commissioner Chloe Eudaly was noncommittal. That could leave Hardesty the sole dissenting vote. (Commissioner Amanda Fritz hasn't commented.)

"We know that police are not going to solve our housing crisis," says Hardesty. "Pushing people out of a community who have nowhere to go should not be a model."