For much of 2021, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Portland business groups have tried to repair the city’s tattered reputation in the face of rampant homelessness.
They launched a marketing campaign called “Here for Portland” in December, bought a full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers to extol the city’s virtues, and pledged zero tolerance for vandalism and trash.
Unfortunately, their work has been overshadowed in many circles by an anonymous Instagram account with a single message: Portland looks like shit.
The images the account shares with its 53,000-plus followers, in more than 500 posts since last June, compose a mosaic of a city in disrepair.
A man clings to the back of a TriMet bus like Spider-Man. Dozens of orange syringes are scattered next to a freeway on-ramp. Someone defecates on the street in broad daylight. Someone else washes their feet in one of the public drinking fountains called Benson Bubblers.
And—in one of the most popular categories on the page—vehicles and RVs are engulfed in flames and later shown charred into blackened shells.
The account, called @portlandlookslikeshit, has only a quarter of the followers that Travel Portland has on its Instagram page—yet far more engagement, with its viewers submitting their own photographs and videos, captured on cellphones and surveillance cameras, of fires, filth and mental distress on the streets.
Travel Portland, which is primarily a marketing organization for Portland tourism, says it won’t dignify @portlandlookslikeshit with a reply.
“Travel Portland has no comment on an anonymous social media channel designed to convince people that Portland is a dangerous and unwelcoming place,” the tourism board tells WW. “Our priority is supporting Portland’s reopening, uplifting local businesses, creators and experiences, and bringing back visitors who have a major economic impact on the city and surrounding region.”
Much of the focus of the Instagram account is directed at Mayor Wheeler and his staff. “Thank you for your outstanding policies that have driven this city into the third world,” says one image in the “Letters to Ted” section.
Wheeler calls the account harmful and cruel. “This account exploits those who are most vulnerable in our community,” he says, “and shows a lack of compassion for people who are less fortunate, fighting addiction or experiencing mental health crises.”
That’s a common criticism. “It breaks my heart to view this account,” says Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots. “Ridicule is cruel.”
Even potential allies are alienated. Britt Howard, whose Portland Garment Factory burned down in April in a fire that investigators say was started by a homeless woman, is a public critic of the account.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of people who can say a houseless person who’s likely not mentally stable burned down their life,” she says. “[But] posting photos of people when they’re suffering is such a low blow and so ignorant. Now you have 50,000 followers, and what’s your message? It’s baloney.”
In June 2020, @portlandlookslikeshit posted its first photo. Early on, the images and videos were mostly of homeless encampments, with only a few unhoused people dotted throughout. Not one post got more than 100 likes until this February. Now a typical post has 350 likes within 20 minutes.
The tone has since intensified in both captions and images, which now often show the faces of unhoused people in obvious states of mental distress. Many of the videos feature an anonymous videographer interacting with people in some way.
In one video posted to the account June 13, someone off camera films a man defecating on a sidewalk corner. The man, squatting next to a wall, appears to turn his face away as the unnamed videographer remarks: “There’s a bathroom at the park like a block away. What the fuck is wrong with you, man? There’s a fucking school across the street.”
The @portlandlookslikeshit account is similar to others documenting homelessness in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. (The L.A. account @gutterpeoplefromlosangeles also has over 50,000 followers and often refers to homeless people as “it” and “zombie.”) It’s also not the only Portland version: There are spinoffs, but @portlandlookslikeshit is the city’s most prominent.
Rebecca Armstrong, CEO of Portland ad agency North, says such accounts are dangerous because it “starts to look like news reporting, but it’s a very one-sided approach. It’s worrisome, and this is a national trend right now.”
Beyond the sensational photos and footage, much of the intrigue surrounding @portlandlookslikeshit stems from the mystery of who runs it.
Through an Instagram message, the account’s moderator declined to comment for this story, to disclose who runs the page, or to say what that person’s or group’s intentions are.
Among those who comment on the account is Brandon Weeks, owner of HunnyMilk, a brunch spot on West Burnside Street. On a video of two men passed out in a car, Weeks wrote, “Just a couple of hardworking gentlemen down on their luck.”
Weeks tells WW the account paints an honest picture. “We’ve dealt with a lot of the issues directly with the negative parts of the homeless population here in town. Crapping on our doorstep, trying to smoke drugs in the bathroom. People harass me and employees,” Weeks says. “It’s just born out of frustration. It’s just reactionary, to be honest. It’s probably against my better judgment to do that.”
Killer Burger employee Reagan Brunk, 22, has submitted a handful of photos to @portlandlookslikeshit.
“I like it because it’s the shock value, and a lot of what’s going on here is getting watered down and hidden. The account is like a slap in the face to the people who are acting like it’s not a problem,” Brunk says. “I do think they should at least blur faces out, but I don’t think it’s cruel to take those pictures.”
Downtown real estate owner Jordan Menashe, who operates Menashe Properties with his father, Barry, tells WW he was a vocal fan of the account—at least for a while.
In June, Menashe says, he exchanged direct messages with @portlandlookslikeshit because he hoped to speak on the phone or in person with whoever ran the page—partly to learn who they were as well as to possibly collaborate in some capacity.
On Feb. 25, Menashe posted a screenshot of the account on his personal Instagram page.
“Follow this and let’s apply some pressure!” he wrote in the caption. “The way [downtown] Portland looks and feels isn’t fair to anyone. It is entirely inhumane!!!”
Menashe says he stands by his original post encouraging people to follow the account but that, in hindsight, he thinks the account has strayed far from what it was when he first supported it in February.
“It’s gone too far,” he tells WW. “There’s the edge, and then there’s going too far.”
Commercial real estate broker Bruce Garlinghouse leases buildings throughout the city, including in Old Town. He says the account isn’t creating any real change.
“I understand the wanting to highlight and not sugarcoat the issues that have plagued downtown, especially Old Town,” Garlinghouse says. “But when you’re coloring something with such a negative tone, I just don’t think it’s helping.”