For the past two weeks or more, I have become increasingly concerned about the safety of vulnerable people living in the Occupy Portland camps in Chapman and Lownsdale parks. When formerly-homeless military veterans who had been working hard to provide security services told me they had left the camp, after one was robbed of $1000 in equipment (how low do you have to go before stealing from a disabled veteran?), that was one turning point in my mind. Two near-deaths (now three) from drug overdoses, and the Molotov cocktail episode, added to my concern. Both people camping in the parks, and those living, working and visiting nearby are increasingly at risk.
I realize some may not agree with my opinion, so please note that earlier this week, Janus Youth Programs, one of the wonderful nonprofits that provides services to teenagers living outside in Portland, sent a letter to Mayor Adams outlining their concerns. It states in part (emphasis mine),
"the political leanings of the original march and occupation have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of homeless youth and possibly runaway minors who have descended upon the area and, in some instances, brought the violent nature of street-based subcultures and internal hierarchies to the protest site. There are young people with significant developmental delays, mental illness and drug/alcohol abuse issues mingling with potentially predatory adults (and young children) in a largely unchecked environment."
"Yellow Brick Road has also observed a noticeable increase in escalated behavior bordering on hostility mostly from youth we recognized from HYC services (or street outreach), including some young people with serious mental illnesses who are intermittently serving as “peace-keeping” volunteers or security. While we are very supportive of young people having both meaningful voice and purpose, our years of experience with vulnerable street-affected youth tell us that this requires a great deal of structure and expertise or it is a recipe for disaster. For example, one young man we worked with recently broke his hand allegedly breaking up a fight at Occupy Portland in his role as “peace-keeper.” We have also met numerous youth who were voluntarily opting out of homeless youth services or refusing to access services as new clients because they felt they were getting their needs met adequately at Occupy Portland sites."
I am particularly concerned about the safety of people experiencing mental illnesses in the Occupy camps. Camping in close proximity with hundreds of strangers in adverse conditions is stressful for many people with healthy brains. People experiencing mental illnesses have been attracted to the camp, but then may not be able to cope with the challenges of the unstructured environment. And they are subject to predatory behavior, and/or well-meaning "helpers" giving them drugs/alcohol to self-medicate. When they then make unwise choices, they may be more likely get into fights and/or to be arrested than taken to the hospital, because of the pressure-cooker, volatile environment.
The City is working with Multnomah County and Cascadia Behavioral Health to provide mental health services more effectively with dwindling resources, and I believe we have been making progress. A project I am working on, to define protocols to triage calls to the 9-1-1 center to mental health professionals rather than police, is currently on hold, since the police leaders with special mental health care expertise are working at Occupy Portland.
I have said for weeks that behavior matters. The behaviors at the Occupy camps have become too dangerous to be sustainable or healthy for the most vulnerable people there, as well as for other Portlanders. Significantly, the Janus letter notes that in their assessment, the camp organized by and for people experiencing homelessness, known as Right To Dream Too (R2D2) is a safe place for their clients. Behaviors at R2D2 are well-managed, so far, and the organizers there are working with City staff towards building code compliance since they have permission to be on the private property.
Some Portlanders have emailed me saying the campers have nowhere else to go. This infers all the campers are people experiencing homelessness, which is not true. Some are. Janus says they have capacity to take in the teenagers, and the City recently opened the winter shelters for adults experiencing homelessness. Bud Clark Commons is now serving as the care coordination center. JOIN is another great community nonprofit partnering to find services for those who need them. The City allocated millions of dollars for these services, and has increased spending on them despite the overall budget cuts over the recession.
Can the taxpayers of Portland afford to provide housing for all the people now living outside, including hundreds not in the Occupy camps, as well as several within the camps who came to Portland for the protest? No. Are we doing the best we can with available resources? The Council believes Yes, however we welcome everyone's input into the 2011-12 budget process now in progress, so you can give advice on potentially better ways to allocate finite resources.
Police overtime comes out of the General Fund, as does funding for services for people experiencing homelessness, and services for people experiencing mental illnesses. Providing safety patrols at the Occupy Portland camp is taking money away from needed services in other Portland neighborhoods. Every dollar spent to protect the current campers is a dollar that cannot be spent on permanent solutions.
There are multiple ways for citizens to affect social and political change in Portland. Individuals, unions, faith-based organizations, community groups and others can and do make a huge difference, without camping in parks. A representative from Occupy Portland attended the Legislative Forum that Mayor Adams and I hosted on Thursday, where for the third consecutive year we solicited community input to help define the City's priorities for the upcoming state and federal legislative sessions. All requests, including those from the Occupy Portland spokesperson, will be posted on the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and Office of Government Relations web pages by the end of the month, and the Council will hold a public hearing to discuss which issues should be on our advocacy list.
I am very impressed with the way police officers have conducted themselves over the course of the Occupy Portland happenings over the past several weeks, and the willingness to collaborate of many of the campers. I hope this continues over the weekend, and that reasonable Portlanders who support political changes will not oppose the clearing and closure of the parks for repairs. Rather, join the discussions on how the next steps to further constructive political, social and practical changes at the national, state and local levels.
I am several hundred emails behind in responding to people who have emailed me directly about Occupy Portland, and I am working to address the backlog this weekend. So I am not opening comments on this post. Please join the discussion on the Mayor's page, here.