One morning last spring I came to work, settled down at my desk, and had just begun to check my email when I heard the crash of breaking glass outside. I stood up and craned my neck to look out the window and down to the sidewalk. Two figures were scuffling, rolling around together and throwing punches.
From appearances, some young man had decided to harass an older man, and had dumped out his bag of collected bottles and cans. I think the young buck may have underestimated his balding opponent, because the older guy was connecting with more of his punches. After a few moments they separated. The kid postured and threatened a bit, but he wasn’t pressing the issue. “Get your fucking mess off the sidewalk,” he taunted, then strutted away down the sidewalk.
It wasn’t 1:00 am, it was 8:30 in the morning in the middle of the workweek. It wasn’t in some alley in an industrial park, it was on the transit mall in downtown Portland. I mean, go across the street and you had Pioneer Place Mall. Walk a block further and you had Tiffany’s jewelry. Turn around and walk the other way, and you would shortly hit Pioneer Courthouse Square, aka Portland’s Living Room.
This part of downtown Portland is arguably Ground Zero for high-end retail. Businessmen have upscale drinks at The Departures Lounge, or in Urban Farmer. Law firms send their important out-of-town guests to the Hilton Executive Tower, or The Nines. Shoppers carry their Nordstrom bags next to their Kate Spade purses.
But in these very same few blocks, you often have to step over puddles of vomit on the sidewalk, or human excrement left in doorways, and the sidewalks have become a squatting ground for a thriving community of filthy and profane street punks. They sit or sprawl on the sidewalks in little clusters, surrounded by their backpacks and their puppies, with their carefully lettered cardboard signs laid out before them:
Spare Some Change?
Bet you can’t hit me with a quarter.
Why lie? I need a BEER.
I’m traveling and I’m UGLY.
They sit and stand, smoking cigarettes or joints, and spend their days yelling, scuffling, screaming, and generally being a public nuisance.
What the hell happened?
I started commuting downtown about ten years ago. Things were different then. It’s true that there were buskers on the corners, but even though some were awful most could actually play music. Now you rarely hear anything I would call music, just someone screaming while they thrash some poor abused guitar, or the insanity-inducing din of the bucket drummers.
And there have always been panhandlers, usually sitting on a corner, shaking a cup full of change. But the number of folks on the street has dramatically increased over the years. Now they’re everywhere, and they’re far more aggressive. They like to stand directly in front of the doorway to a business, so they can hit you up as you enter or leave. Or they walk down the sidewalk and ask everyone down the line for change. I’ve been approached three different times recently while standing at a food cart counter. Now, I’m a big guy, and when I say “no” or “not today”, that’s usually the end of it, but I think being followed down the sidewalk by someone repeatedly asking for money could be intimidating for some folks.
How did downtown PDX become a refuge for these social parasites? That’s a harsh term, but I’m using it intentionally. They aren’t earning a wage, or paying taxes. Their spending in the community is, I would assume, minimal. Meanwhile, the folks who have jobs or businesses downtown, who pay rent and property taxes, are increasingly being held hostage. We have to go about our day, run our errands and be productive, all while trying to ignore the begging, the screaming, the swearing, the scuffling, and the dog fights.
And although their impact on general livability is bad enough, even worse is the black eye that these street kids put on the face that Portland presents to tourists and business visitors. It’s embarrassing to be meeting an important associate from overseas, only to have the meeting interrupted by a shockingly loud stream of profanity from street level. It’s even worse to try and take your guests to a lovely local eatery only to have them stepping over and around surly (and smelly) squatters.
Right now I have coworkers that will go around the block every day in order to avoid the spots where street kids habitually congregate. How long will it be until the idea of working somewhere where they won’t have to deal with this kind of crap becomes attractive enough to look elsewhere?
What can be done? I don’t have any answers. It’s easy to say “more policing!”, except city budgets are already being cut to the bone. Additionally, since the courts have classified panhandling as protected speech, and sidewalks as public property, it’s become nearly impossible for the police to actually do anything there. Remember Sit/Lie? But clearly something needs to be done.
Some cities have adopted the “Broken Window” strategy developed by George Kelling and James Wilson. The concept works like this: Graffiti, petty vandalism, and other signs of decay indicate public disinterest. Fear of crime increases, and the most law-abiding citizens leave the neighborhood, accelerating the increase of more serious crimes. Therefore, a vigorous enforcement of even minor misdemeanors and behavioral offenses creates a deterrent and a decrease in serious crime. It’s a reasonable idea, and Rudy Guiliani’s “zero-tolerance” policy is often credited with turning around the crime rate in New York.
But if you scrutinize the data, the correlation isn’t all that convincing. And besides, do you really want to tell the Portland Police to be harder on petty criminals? After they killed James Chasse? After they shotgunned a 12-year old in the thigh with a beanbag round for trespassing on a Tri-Met platform? The cure could be worse than the disease.
Nevertheless, I don’t think I’m alone in being fed up with the environment downtown. And a lot of my irritation comes down to believing what I was taught as a child — it’s impolite to scream in public, it’s rude to interrupt people, you should treat others the way you want to be treated, and you should take some interest in personal hygiene. And Portland, as a community, has the right to expect civilized behavior from all of the members of the community.
I know, without a doubt, that there are those who will denounce my attitude as classist and heartless. They will assert that these street people have been forced into horrible circumstances by a crappy economy. To which I say “bullshit”. I’m not targeting anyone for being homeless, or even for living on the street, but I’m completely fed up with people who engage in disruptive and antisocial behavior. Furthermore, I firmly believe that most of the people squatting on the sidewalks downtown aren’t asking for money in order to survive. In my opinion, these are folks who have made a choice to live a particular lifestyle, one that includes begging and does not include getting a job. They sport hundreds of dollars worth of tats and piercings, and they’re not going to use the money you give them to get off the street, they’re going to buy beer, cigarettes, and/or weed. And remember, these people aren’t victims meekly asking for charity — they’re running you down and demanding it. And they get irritated and indignant when they don’t get it.
Downtown should be better than this. Portland should be better than this.