Emails Show Portland Businesses Wanted Homeless Meal Service Gone From a Downtown Park

Emails from parks employees and the Portland Business Alliance show references to Free Hot Soup’s services as “feeds” or “the Feed.”

Director Park. (Alejandro Rdguez)

Newly obtained emails show the city's crackdown on free meals in a downtown park, couched as a sanitation and regulatory measure, followed significant pressure from nearby businesses and trade associations.

In October, Portland Parks & Recreation told the volunteer group Free Hot Soup, which serves free meals five nights a week in Director Park, it would now need permits to continue providing meals.

The permits would require the group, which has been providing free meals for six years, to follow food-handling regulations, obtain liability insurance, and reduce service in Director Park to one night a week.

The city says the move will ensure charities provide food that is safe, that areas are kept clean, and that other members of the public have equal access to Portland parks.

However, emails WW obtained through public records requests show City Commissioner Nick Fish and the parks bureau, which he oversees, may be more focused on keeping downtown businesses happy than looking out for the homeless.

Here's what the emails show.

1. Businesses near Director Park threatened to leave.

• "We've seen a big increase in the homeless population on our corner and in the park in the last year, and we know it has increased security issues and, looking at declining sales, had a negative impact on our business," wrote Susan Bashel, an owner of Pastini restaurant adjacent to the park, in an email to Fish on April 24. "We have recently put a restaurant remodel there on hold, and are evaluating whether we should renew our lease there."

Elephants Deli, in nearby Fox Tower, also reported issues before it closed its satellite location in Director Park. "Elephant's noted conflicts with a non-permitted nightly food sharing program—Free Hot Soup," read a Portland Parks & Recreation briefing document dated Feb. 7, 2018.

2. Travel Portland, which recently moved into a kiosk in Director Park, also complained about safety issues.

• "Their employees have been accosted a number of times to the point where they are carrying pepper spray during their shifts, and Travel Portland would like to find a way to help fix the safety concerns themselves," Fish aide Jamie Dunphy wrote to Todd Lofgren of the parks bureau on Aug. 15.

• "I just left you a message to see if you are available to meet tomorrow concerning the dangerous situation our employees and volunteers are encountering at the Visitors Center in Directors Park," Jeff Miller, president of Travel Portland, wrote to Dunphy on Aug. 19. "I am incredibly concerned."

• "I know you already understand what kind of behavior goes on in the park but this has been a shock for our employees and volunteers to encounter," Miller wrote to parks security manager Vicente Harrison on Aug. 20. "Frightening frankly."

3. Emails from parks employees and the Portland Business Alliance show a high level of coordination and references to Free Hot Soup's services as "feeds" or "the Feed."

• "My understanding is that there is a broader strategy still under development/review about dealing with feeds and other social services," Eileen Argentina of the parks bureau wrote to Lofgren on Jan. 9. "Is that likely to be the vehicle for addressing Free Hot Soup, to the extent that there is one?"

• "I believe we have a meeting scheduled to discuss our approach to address the 'Feed' at Director Park," parks director Adena Long wrote to staff on May 14.

• "Any chance you could send us over those draft rules on the feeds[?] We have our Central City Standing Committee coming in today," Jon Isaacs of PBA wrote to Fish's chief of staff Sonia Schmanski on Sept. 17. "We'd like to be able demonstrate the good work you and Commissioner Fish have been doing on this to that group."

Kaia Sand, executive director of the homeless advocacy group Street Roots, doesn't like the way meals were characterized. "I'm struck by how language such as 'dealing with feeds' sounds industrial, dehumanizing," she says. "People sharing food—housed and unhoused—in the heart of our city: Isn't that actually a beautifully aspirational vision?"

Schmanski says the new policy resulted in more than two years of consultation with stakeholders. She says Fish is committed to helping groups such as Free Hot Soup continue their work and that the proposed permits "grew out of bureau concerns regarding stewardship of our shared spaces, safety, and fair community access to our parks."

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