The Downtown Portland Clean & Safe program is facing two questions in the coming months — should it continue to exist and if so, what scope of services should it provide to downtown and Old Town?
Of particular concern: Clean & Safe’s impact on people experiencing homelessness and those who cross their paths.
The program, established four decades ago by a coalition of businesses, charges property owners located inside its 200-block boundaries to fund an extra layer of services on top of what the city provides.
Clean & Safe, which is funded by 426 business and residential ratepayers, is primarily known for providing extra officers from the Portland Police Bureau, armed and unarmed private security guards, litter pickup and sidewalk cleaning. Part of the $5 million annual budget also goes to recruit and retain businesses and pay for holiday lights, economic development, government relations and administrative costs.
But its impact on homeless individuals living or spending time downtown has long been questioned by both housed and unhoused residents and homelessness advocates. They contend the private Clean & Safe security guards, who work on the same business-backed team as four police officers funded by the program, blur the line of public authority in a manner critics say devolves into harassment as they interact with people who have no home.
A group of homeless proponents, including Stop the Sweeps PDX and the Western Regional Advocacy Project, are asking for wholesale change. They want the private security and city police contracts ended, the Portland Business Alliance removed as manager of Clean & Safe’s day-to-day operations and residential property owners within the boundaries given more control of the program.
Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan, who is the City Council’s liaison to the joint city-county homelessness office, said he wants to see improved coordination between Clean & Safe and the city’s Impact Reduction Team, which cleans encampments citywide and removes those tent clusters that present high public health threats.
The team is trained to work with homeless individuals and offers them shelter or housing services. If an encampment is to be removed, the team notifies individuals beforehand and agrees to temporarily store their personal possessions.
Ryan said that team should lead Clean & Safe’s engagement with homeless individuals, reining in the private agency’s power.
Ariana Donaville, a spokesperson for Clean & Safe, said “Providing compassionate care to our unsheltered neighbors is part of the contract renewal conversations … We are constantly improving, modernizing and updating safety services to best practices that will help serve everyone who lives in and visits downtown, including the unsheltered.”
Advocates, businesses and the public will have opportunities to voice their opinions before the Portland City Council votes on both the renewal of the program’s contract and the fees to support it by September 30.
GAPS IN SERVICES
Outside the window of Old Town Coffee, near the intersection of Northwest 1st Avenue and Couch Street, owner Nicole Tignor sees a neighborhood in need of more mental health services.
“Daily I have seen people in mental health crisis,” she said. “Clean & Safe really can’t do much because they aren’t trained for this, so it’s not a complaint to them, it’s just they are the wrong tool being sent for the job. When someone is in crisis, what I have seen (responders) do is that they will surround that person” so that the individual must go through their mental health episode in that confined space.
A private security guard with a Downtown Portland patch sown on the shoulder of his blue uniform was patrolling the area around The Society Hotel at Northwest 3rd Avenue and Davis Street on Monday. The guard, who said he wasn’t allowed to provide his name, said he mainly responds “to people acting crazy in the street.”
Ray Lustler, who lives in a tent in Old Town, said uniformed officers in the area don’t know how to talk to homeless individuals and often communicate in an aggressive manner, which can trigger aggressive responses. Lustler said he has seen these interactions from both security guards and police but often has a hard time telling the two apart.
Another man experiencing homelessness in downtown Portland said he has experienced similar interactions with security guards. He asked not to be named for fear of retaliation from the security patrols.
“They intimidate people, they are physically aggressive, and they make their own rules,” he said. “They are private security for buildings, but they act as sidewalk security, throwing people off the street and making people move and threatening to call the police.” The aggressive acts simmered down during the pandemic, he said, but he fears the aggressions will escalate now that businesses have fully reopened.
Volunteer Shannon Cogan helps conduct surveys on behalf of Stop the Sweeps PDX and Portland State University’s homeless research team to understand the impact Clean & Safe and similar programs in two other parts of the city have on individuals experiencing homelessness. Cogan s
ees ongoing problems stemming from the fact that police have enforcement powers that the private security guards they work with aren’t authorized to use – yet are sometimes seen trying to. While the full report will be released later this summer, she said there are already patterns coming to light.
“We ask if people in uniform identify themselves and who they work for when approaching individuals, and that is rarely happening,” Cogan said. “If someone has a badge and uniform, that gives the private security companies enough perceived authority to police public spaces, and that is alarming to me because that leads to the private business community telling people where they can or cannot sit.”
Lustler said he and his tent neighbors are constantly pushed from one side of the street to the other by either police or security guards but are never informed on how they can access supportive services like housing, case management or shelter.
According to the 2020 Downtown Portland Survey, Portland Business Alliance members want to see more rules for allowable behavior in public spaces — on top of what the security guards already enforce — with 65% stating that there aren’t adequate conduct limits. Seventy-seven percent of respondents also said that people experiencing homelessness, mental illness or substance abuse have a high impact on business.
Clean & Safe and the city are co-hosting listening sessions to gather feedback from residential and business ratepayers and other interested parties about priorities for the new Clean & Safe contract.
During the first session on June 29, a handful of retail store owners that pay Clean & Safe fees said addressing homelessness was their top priority. While some pushed for additional security and police, that isn’t the only way that Clean & Safe could address the issue under city rules.
Per city code, enhanced service districts can also spend money on promoting the development of downtown housing or “any such services that benefit properties in the district.” The Clean & Safe contract doesn’t specify that housing work must be confined to private developments, which leaves the door open for directing supportive resources to affordable housing as well.
To be sure, Clean & Safe has donated about $30,000 a year to Transition Projects to support the organization’s team that provides support to individuals living on the street.
‘GOOD AT WHAT THEY DO’
Jennifer Coon, a peer support specialist at Blanchet House, which provides free meals three times a day in Old Town, called Clean & Safe on a recent Friday for assistance with a woman who was walking around naked.
“I honestly think if I were to call the police in these situations, things wouldn’t end as positively,” Coon said. “When I call, I am not put on hold like when I call the police. I immediately get to talk to a real person and they immediately respond.”
In the recent incident, Coon said while she was the one who was able to soothe the woman and convince her to put clothes on, the presence of a security officer provided an authoritative presence that helped convince the woman to cooperate.
Scott Kerman, Blanchet House director, said the resource is helpful for low level mental health issues.
“They are really good at helping us deescalate situations without using intimidation or force,” Kerman said. “They can be really effective at helping someone reconnect to where they are with verbal and nonverbal cues. Sometimes that means helping someone move out of traffic or deescalating a hostile situation before it becomes violent.”
Still, Blanchet officials said the Clean & Safe police officers and security guards aren’t equipped to handle all crises in the area. There is a gap in services for severe mental health episodes, including dissociative, delirium, and schizophrenic behaviors, which are common occurrences, they say. The city’s Street Response program that pairs an emergency medical technician with a mental health counselor would be much more effective, they said.
“What we would like to see is Portland Street Response eventually coming to fill that gap,” Kerman said. “It’s not something that Clean & Safe should be tasked with, and it’s not something we always want to call police about, because we know that police presence can be a trigger for some or might scare off some of the people we are serving.”
While observers report pros and cons of Clean & Safe’s handling of public safety, their handling of litter has been praised, both by businesses and local residents. Tignor, the owner of Old Town Coffee, is thankful for their work cleaning sidewalks and picking up trash.
John King, who recently exited homelessness and has been housed for three months, got a job cleaning up trash through Clean & Safe. The drug treatment program he participated in connected him to the job through Central City Concern, a Portland homeless services provider that Clean & Safe contracts with to staff the clean-up program.
“I love this job,” he said. “I like that I can help the community on a large scale and it pays well. I work 40 hours a week and get $15 an hour. It helped me get back on my feet and save money to buy a phone and reconnect with my family.”
The program typically employs people for six months. King is halfway through his stint but doesn’t know what will happen once his contract ends. He believes his life at the end of the contract will be “left up to sheer luck.”
During the most recent contract renewal listening session on July 20, some residential ratepayers expressed concern with the fairness of Clean & Safe’s decision-making procedures and use of security.
Owners of residences in the zone are charged a yearly fee based on a complicated formula of about $1.20 per $1,000 of assessed value plus add ons.
Adele Pelletier, a district resident, asked why only businesses and not residents are surveyed each year about their priorities for the district.
Candee Wilson, who owns a condo in Old Town Chinatown, said the yearly fee feels burdensome. “But to say this neighborhood is clean or safe is a gross understatement.”
Anita Davidson, who owns a condo downtown, said she isn’t comfortable with private security policing public spaces and questioned how funding was spent. She said less money should go to pay Portland Business Alliance staff and more to services that residential ratepayers value.
While the city oversees funding for the Clean & Safe contract, the organization is an affiliate of the Portland Business Alliance. This means the city collects fees from ratepayers, then passes those fees on to Clean & Safe whose board decides how funds will be used, and then Portland Business Alliance puts those decisions into action.
Of Clean & Safe’s 13 permanent, non-contracted employees, all but two or three also work for the business alliance.
Benjamin Donlon of Stop the Sweeps PDX said that overlap shows the district’s priorities are largely driven by businesses as opposed to residents of the district, particularly unhoused residents.
About $1 million of Clean & Safe’s $5 million budget goes to staffing, $1.1 million goes to litter and sidewalk clean up and $2.3 million goes to security and police. However, it is difficult to truly follow the money as Clean & Safe would only release a summarized budget report. It is not clear how much of the shared staff’s salary is funded by Clean & Safe.
The city of Portland pays $23,600 a year to Clean & Safe for service district fees on properties it owns within the district.
The business alliance and Clean & Safe issued a joint statement earlier this year defending their shared staff, saying it allows the two nonprofits to provide services to downtown in a more cost-effective way.
Western Regional Advocacy Project director Paul Bodon, who has studied government-authorized privately-funded zones to provide extra services throughout the country, said what was most unique to Portland’s is the lack of transparency regarding spending and decision-making.
An audit of Portland’s enhanced services districts conducted by the city’s independent auditor and released in August 2020 found the city was not providing enough oversight of the entities, particularly given their police-like roles.
The auditor said the city should approve the programs’ scope of work and hold them accountable for reporting their activities, results and governing process. The city is still deciding how it will fully respond to the auditor’s call for it to better oversee and ensure transparency from the three privately funded programs.
“The problem arises,” the auditor found, “when security, enforcement and management of public spaces are decided by one paying sector of the community without the city’s oversight and public input.”
Nicole Hayden reports on homelessness for The Oregonian|OregonLive. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Nicole_A_Hayden.