One Day With the Squad That Removes Needles and Feces From Downtown Portland Streets

New proposals in this year’s budget would begin to address practical challenges and employ new methods to move away from arresting the mentally ill on the streets.

John Hawk (in vest), who helps clean the streets of downtown Portland, knew one of the men whose belonging he helped clean, from living alongside him on the streets. Hawk recalls avoiding contact with people who might help him with sobriety. “I didn’t want clean cooties,” he says. (Laurel Kadas)

7 am, Old Town

Every weekday morning, shortly before dawn, a squadron of men arrives downtown to serve as an alarm clock.

These security officers roust people who are sleeping against buildings or in the middle of the sidewalk. They tell them it's time to wake up—and stand watch until they do.

That's the cue for Cindi Shipley.

Wearing a bright reflective vest, hiking boots and black cargo shorts, Shipley appears moments after the officers, hauling a trash can on wheels.

"People get really upset sometimes, being woke up at 7 o'clock in the morning," she says. "They don't want to go nowhere. Which I get. I understand."

Private security officers roust people sleeping on downtown streets at 7 am. (Laurel Kadas)

Along with the officers, Shipley, 41, works for the Clean and Safe program at Central City Concern, which in turn has a contract with the downtown businesses that tax themselves to clean the sidewalks every day.

It's not work most people would want. Shipley's grateful for it.

"This is a pretty freaking good job," she says. "It's not a hard job. It's not a complicated job. I get to talk to people."

Shipley's gratitude is understandable. Until two years ago, the former stay-at-home mom who grew up in North Portland lived on the streets.

Now she has a home and a job—on the front lines of cleaning up the mess left by people living on the sidewalk. As a trainer of her fellow cleaners, Shipley makes $13.75 an hour and receives benefits that include health and dental insurance.

Shipley passes a tidy couple living on the streets, one of them reading a National Geographic magazine.They keep their own trash can to keep things tidy—and Shipley empties it. (Laurel Kadas)

It's not a surprise that Portlanders of different stripes say homelessness is the biggest challenge this city faces.

This is Portland's budget season, and the city continues to fund shelter and services for the homeless at a rate unheard just a few years ago. Mayor Ted Wheeler has dedicated $32 million of his budget to the Joint Office of Homeless Services. That's up from $14.5 million in 2015-16.

But the city has yet to turn a corner in the highest-profile symptom of the homelessness crisis: The streets of downtown are full of people talking to themselves, high or mentally ill, and camped out with their few possessions. In lieu of long-term solutions, the city and its largest businesses rely on temporary, cosmetic fixes like sending a broom-and-bucket brigade every morning to scour away the evidence of a broken social contract.

An early morning cleanup near the Burnside Bridge removes the smells and bedding from the night before.(Laurel Kadas)

In downtown, according to statistics compiled by the Clean and Safe District, the number of hypodermic needles picked up off the streets grew from 2,817 in 2012 to 38,394 in 2018. "Sometimes I think it's getting better, sometimes I feel like it's getting worse," says Jay McIntyre, business director for the Clean Start program at the nonprofit Central City Concern.

New proposals in this year's budget would begin to address practical challenges—like the need for more public toilets—and employ new methods to move away from arresting the mentally ill on the streets.

But for now, the Portland group that makes some of the daily contact with the homeless is a crew of cleaners, most of whom were recently homeless themselves.

Business leaders tout their support for creating these jobs. "Addiction has touched everybody's life in one way or another," says Maureen Fisher, executive director of Downtown Portland Clean and Safe District. "To see these people turn their lives around—and having just even a little bit to do with that—is really rewarding."

This security and janitorial service covers 213 square blocks.

It's fraught territory. Few groups are as antagonistic toward each other as business owners and homeless campers. When business owners on the central eastside established a similar program last fall, homeless advocates called it inhumane.

Shipley considers her job a form of peacemaking between these natural adversaries. She scoops up feces, needles and trash that would otherwise threaten the fragile peace that exists between those who own businesses and real estate and those who own nothing.

Shipley and her colleagues see Portland's homelessness with an intimacy few city residents experience. Last week, we joined them on their rounds. We saw what they saw.

This is a day cleaning up Portland's streets.

(Laurel Kadas)

7:20 am, Southwest 1st Avenue

The day starts with needles.

Strawberry blond and tall, Shipley smiles a lot and greets people with a hug. For much of the past decade, she was homeless, mostly staying in shelters. Three years ago, she and her husband and their two kids were living in an RV outside Boise-Eliot School in North Portland.

In April 2016, TV news stations ran a story about a homeless man living in the same neighborhood who jumped out of an adjacent RV in a clown mask and started talking to kids. It was a frightening spectacle: a man trying to approach kids from a creepy RV.

Shipley was then addicted to meth. Her kids were taken from her and her husband to foster care. Nearly two years ago, she went into treatment in an effort to get them back. In September, she started this job. (She got an apartment in March and is still working to get her kids back full time. One son spends weekends with her.)

Now, she goes to bed at 8 pm, wakes at 4:30 am and leaves at 4:57 am from her two-bedroom apartment in North Portland, where she lives alone until her boys are returned to her. Federal Section 8 housing vouchers help pay the $988-a-month rent. She takes the No. 35 TriMet bus to report for work by 6 am.

Cindi Shipley (Laurel Kadas)

The Blazers won last night, she's told. She cheers.

Shipley gathers her rig, a solid black steel cart with two blue trash barrels on top. The one in front has a blue trash bag inside. On a typical shift, Shipley says she'll fill a dozen bags.

The can in the back contains her supplies: a scraper for stickers and graffiti, a short broom for sweeping, a dust bin with a handle, and a second broom with tough bristles for scrubbing dried feces and vomit off the sidewalk.

In the middle is a battery-operated spray gun attached to a tank filled with 5 gallons of an enzyme solution called Take Down Cherry. "It neutralizes the smell of urine and feces," she explains.

She and a fellow on a bike named Matt who works with her as a "crew member" start their shift, clearing paper and cardboard scraps left on the sidewalk near the nonprofit Mercy Corps headquarters at 45 SW Ankeny St., just south of the Burnside Bridge.

The workers pick up each scrap of paper with metal pincers. This method is more difficult than simply bending down—but there's a good reason for the pincers. As Matt is scooping up a pink-labeled champagne bottle into his cart, he spots needles inside.

He turns it upside down. The first two needles come out with ease. The next ones are stuck.

(Laurel Kadas)

"If they won't come out, break the glass and I'll sweep it up," Shipley offers. Eventually, he breaks the neck of the bottle by striking it against the ground.

The needles could be hidden anywhere. Shipley says she usually finds only two or three a day.

"One time, I got 36 of them in one day because somebody just left 'em, like a big pile of them, all in one spot," she says. "That's why we don't pick up anything with our hands. It looks like you're being lazy, but even cardboard or paper, you squish it with your feet if you can't get it with the grabber, because there could be needles or feces underneath."

Shipley says one worker made the mistake of picking up a piece of cardboard and got pricked. Another picked up a garbage bag by putting a hand underneath it and got pricked. The rule for a bag: Pick it up by the knot on top.

7:45 am, Southwest 2nd Avenue

Shipley gets a call on the black flip phone she carries.

Someone at the Union Gospel Mission at 3 NW 3rd Ave. has spotted feces on the sidewalk. It's Shipley's job to report there within half an hour.

"Over there, I'm going to take a guess, it's going to be human," she says. "But it might not be."

While she doesn't love poop duty, she's no-nonsense about it. "It takes three seconds," she says. "If I didn't have to, I wouldn't particularly want to be picking up human feces, but it is what it is. I try not to judge. Sometimes it's hard."

(Laurel Kadas)

She tells two poop stories. One is about a woman so mentally ill she took a dump right in front of Shipley. She says she just cleaned up without saying anything.

The second was when someone on the streets tried to dispose of their poop in a paper bag. Shipley picked it up and it splashed out onto her and her cart. "I was glad I was wearing pants that day," she says.

The mayor's proposed budget for the coming year includes $877,870 for portable toilets—and funding for staff at those toilets.

Shipley searches a full city block for the reported feces.

Later, in a tunnel under the damaged parking garage on 4th Avenue, she sees the unmistakable sign that the pile is human feces.

There are at least two ways to be sure it's human. "When it's got paper towels or napkins," says Shipley. "Dogs don't wipe."

The other: when poop is running down a wall, evidence that a human leaned against it. By the garage, there is no wall. But a fence of black construction mesh is clearly poop-stained. It's dark in the tunnel, so Shipley says she may have missed it yesterday.

"I try not to judge," Shipley says again.

9:15 AM, Southwest 4th Avenue

A woman walks by and chats up Shipley as if they're old friends. Shipley has never met her before.

But it's not uncommon to run across people raving to themselves or acting overly friendly. "There are a couple of mentally ill women who act like they're my best friend," she says.

Cindi Shipley is friendly to most everyone she sees on the streets, and is quick to offer a hug.(Laurel Kadas)

Another man with piercing blue eyes and gray sweatpants stained a darker gray down the backside to the knee stops to tell Shipley he had a seizure this morning when he was woken by the patrols. He says he's going to the hospital.

"We need another mental health facility," Shipley says.

This year's budget brings no immediate relief, but work is underway: Multnomah County bought a new building downtown to focus on mental health services and even provide transitional housing and shelter. And the city, county and regional governments are working to provide more housing that comes with resources for services.

"I used to live at the Estates [a Central City Concern building in Old Town]. There was one lady who used to sleep in the doorway. And she would punch herself in her head. Really, that lady needs to live in a facility where she can get a meal and her meds. She should not have to be on the streets. But I don't know what I can do about it."

John Hawk (in vest), who helps clean the streets of downtown Portland, knew one of the men whose belonging he helped clean, from living alongside him on the streets. Hawk recalls avoiding contact with people who might help him with sobriety. “I didn’t want clean cooties,” he says. (Laurel Kadas)

10:50 am, Southwest 2nd Avenue

The man appears out of his mind. He is sashaying back and forth in front of Mother's Bistro. He's carrying an empty carton of Reese's chocolate ice cream, and dancing to music no one else can hear.

"Hello," Shipley says as she passes.

She says hello to nearly everybody on the street when she's not concentrating on picking up the next bit of litter or chatting with someone else.

"Sometimes if they're screaming to themselves, I'll smile," she says. "They'll stop screaming. Sometimes, like little kids, sometimes you just got to distract them. There's one guy, his name is Jeff. He sleeps right by the Burnside Bridge. Sometimes he's cussing 'die, die,' and 'f you' to somebody that's in his head and not to anyone who's out there. And some days he's like 'Hi, Cindi.'"

The dancing man hears her. "Hello," he says gently through his apparently drug-addled fog.

(Laurel Kadas)

Shipley says she was addicted to methamphetamine for 17 years. She'll mark two years sober, she says, on July 11. "7-Eleven—I get a free Slurpee on my clean day," she says. "Everybody else does too." She smiles. She did six months of in-treatment care, and then she continued in outpatient care while living in a Central City Concern building for addicts in recovery.

Many of the workers for the Clean and Safe program are in recovery. Until last month, the program hired only people affiliated with Central City Concern, which helps treat and house those with addictions, among other work. (Because of the booming economy and high demand for cleaning services, the nonprofit has broadened its hiring pool.)

The city is starting to grapple with addiction services. In the past, the mayor has argued that such services are the county's role to fulfill. For the first time, there's $500,000 in the city budget for addiction treatment services to pair with housing. "Traditionally, that is the purview of Multnomah County," Wheeler said May 2. "I think it is unrealistic to assume Multnomah County can do all of that alone. Supportive housing is a very high priority for this administration."

The effort is part of the city's commitment to supportive housing, housing designed for the kind of people Shipley runs across, and the new budget allocation appears to be part of the mayor's effort to claim the issue as his own. (Other city dollars that could serve the same purpose have been combined with county resources as part of the Joint Office of Homeless Services.)

For Clean and Safe workers in recovery, the exposure to the streets can often help. Twice a week, she sees someone completely passed out on drugs. "I get a daily reminder of why I don't want to use—because I don't want to be homeless again," says Shipley.

But there are also downsides. The worst is finding meth in the garbage. Once, she found a glass pipe. "I smashed it instead of picking it up," she says. "I didn't even want to touch it because I was really new in recovery."

Smoking meth was her preferred way to get high.

1:15 pm, near the Salvation Army

At the corner of Southwest Ash Street, Shipley spots a heartening sign: a bag she'd left for garbage pickup has obviously been re-tied.

Someone has been rooting through it. But at least they cared enough to tidy up.

She doesn't judge people for what they leave on the streets. But she does judge those who dig through trash and strew it across the sidewalk.

"I get not caring because you just don't care about anything," she says. "But I don't know. I never did that."

(Laurel Kadas)

She passes the Salvation Army women's shelter at 30 NW 2nd Ave. It used to serve families; women and children on one floor, men on another, she recalls. "I remember putting Kristopher [her youngest child] to sleep in a pack-and-play," she says. Kristopher is now 13. He was 4 months old, she thinks, when her family stayed at this shelter for a couple months.

"Sometimes people will make comments about the people on the streets," she says. "If someone is making a big mess in front of your business, you're not going to be happy about it. I get it. But getting all mean about it isn't going to help anything."

Now she turns the corner onto Southwest Ankeny Street and spots a white blanket against the wall. She puts it in the trash.

If it were accompanied by other personal belongings, she says, she might leave it. But it's not clear anyone will return for this blanket.

Plus, it's against a building. And those are the rules.

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