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Leaders of Old Town Cultural Groups Want Elected Officials to Act on Safety

Their asks: More police and deployment of mental health professionals to Old Town.

Four cultural groups in Old Town penned a letter to city and county elected officials on Monday, laying out their concerns about the condition of their neighborhood.

Their ultimate demand: The city and county must deploy more police and mental health professionals to Old Town to manage what they said are escalating mental health, crime and physical and verbal threat crises.

The four cultural groups, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, the Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and the Portland Chinatown Museum, collectively wrote about their “profound concerns” regarding the “rapidly deteriorating conditions in our neighborhood and to demand immediate action to safeguard our visitors, staff and volunteers. We have each had personal conversations with you or participated in the calls and group discussions convened by your staff over the last several months. We’ve shared accounts of flagrant drug dealing, fires and vandalism, verbal and physical threats as well as actual assaults.”

The leaders of the institutions wrote that the city failure to manage Old Town’s conditions is disrespectful to the cultural history of ethnic and religious groups in Old Town, which have a rich economic history in the neighborhood.

“What’s more, as organizations dedicated to giving voice to those who have suffered discrimination and indignity, it is particularly difficult to recognize and respond to the crisis of humanity unfolding around us daily,” the letter read.

Notably, the letter never mentions the word “homeless” or “houseless,” though the connection is clear.

A demand to meet with city and official leaders by Oct. 22 capped the letter. Their specific asks: Adding police officers and deploying mental health services to the neighborhood.

“We need to hear the city’s plans for adding police and combating rising crime and we need the county to step up and deploy mental health professionals and services to our neighborhood,” the letter says.

Scott Kerman, director of Blanchet House, an Old Town soup kitchen, recently told WW that the neighborhood resembles an “open-air psychiatric ward.’” The letter cites that description.

Beefing up the police presence to deal with issues involving mental health crises and bouts of psychosis is a hotly debated topic, but downtown homeless services providers told WW in September that police can often escalate the situation with their mere presence by adding an element of criminalization to mental health situations they are not trained to deal with.

Jenn Coon, a peer support specialist at Blanchet House, told WW at the time that she avoids calling police unless there’s real physical risk: “That’s the last thing I want to do. I’m not trying to add anxiety to the situation by bringing police,” Coon says. “We also don’t want to be labeled a snitch on the streets.”

“The frequency and severity of the vandalism, violence and mental instability has only worsened in Old Town over the past three to four weeks,” the institution representatives wrote. Three Lan Su Chinese Garden employees experienced verbal or physical threats in one day in September, the letter noted.

The leaders ended with a warning to the city: That the state of Old Town could lead to the four cultural groups not being able to guarantee the safety of their patrons, and seemed to allude to potentially relocating their businesses out of the neighborhood.

“The Lan Su Chinese Garden hosts 2,000 visitors each week and cannot honestly assure their health and safety under current conditions,” the leaders wrote. “Our organizations face costly and consequential choices if the situation does not improve.”

A spokesman for City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, Adam Lyons, says he is trying to set up a meeting with the groups this week.

“I hear and understand the frustration expressed in the letter from organizations in Old Town. It is one of the primary reasons I voted to extend the Clean and Safe contract, with its new mental and behavioral health resources,” Mapps told WW. “I hope that with the expansion of Portland Street Response, we will see added services to the area. I will work with and support the Portland Police Bureau in any effort to intervene on criminal or unlawful behavior.”

Other elected officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.