In recent years, the homeless have emerged as an important group in Portland’s urban core. They have brought their tents, beat-up cars, and campers to a number of community areas. While not always true, many of the homeless have mental or health problems that make their functioning difficult. Almost inevitably, the movement of the homeless into various areas brings problems for some long-term residents.
Pearl Rotary heard on October 15 about Goose Hollow, one “invaded” neighborhood where it appears that virtually no one is satisfied with the situation. Tiffany Hammer, a long-term resident of the area, spoke on behalf of many established residents. The homeless had no speaker, but the audience heard from Nathan Vasquez, a government district attorney who is struggling to help the residents and resolve its problems through government and charitable organizations. The bottom line, according to the speakers, is that the search for acceptable solutions to the problems has not worked well.
Goose Hollow is located near Portland State University and an on-ramp to US 26, the road that carries commuters between the downtown and western suburbs such as Beaverton. The peaceful residential history of the community can be traced back to the early days of white settlement in Portland. These days, the Hollow has a stock of older housing that is disproportionately rental. Niche, a website with realtor sponsorship, says Goose Hollow is “one of the best places to live in Oregon. Living in Goose Hollow offers residents a dense urban feel and most residents rent their homes.”
The problems of this area seem to relate primarily to three factors. Most important is the existence of strips of open land where the homeless may live. Another major factor is its accessibility to a major road (US 26) that leads to other accessible destinations. A final factor is its close proximity to other core areas where the homeless live.
Tiffany, the owner of a rented home, reported with great distress to Rotarians about some of her experiences in the area during the two previous years. She had a brick thrown through a window and encountered unwelcome visitors in her home. Her next-door neighbors were burglarized, a fairly common experience. She reported heavy use of drugs and high rates of bizarre behavior such as a homeless person setting himself on fire. One of the major concerns, according to Tiffany, is that some of the homeless are frequent offenders against the law but there are few serious consequences, even when arrested or convicted.
To discourage the human use of land strips, Tiffany and some of her housed neighbors organized a self-financed program of planting roses on the land that might be occupied by the homeless. This led to Tiffany being called the “rose lady”. At first, Tiffany said, the rose program had some positive effects on discouraging unwanted residents and activities. However, after a few weeks, the old problems seemed to return in full force, partly because the homeless sabotaged the rose planting program.
The latest solution has involved the transportation by government agencies of very large boulders into the land strips, a program that has been tried in other urban neighborhoods when unwanted homeless have moved. But many of the past problems remain.
Nathan, the county attorney, has been a key player in trying to help the residents. He said that a variety of programs have been tried to pacify the homeless such as providing auxiliary food and sanitary facilities and counseling for individuals. He admitted to Rotarians, nevertheless, that the programs had not eliminated the many problems in the community.
One of the major concerns of householders in Goose Hollow is the fact that those engaged in illegal actions are often not punished seriously or permanently forced out of the community. While expressing great sympathy to the long-term Hollow residents, Nathan said that there were basic problems in controlling undesired behavior. Many of the illegal acts are not very serious, and the criminal residents quickly return to the streets. The government also lacks the resources to seriously prosecute and house offenders if convicted. Nathan argued that informal approaches to undesired behavior such as counseling and “sobering up” may have as much potential for stabilizing neighborhood life as simply putting away the offenders.