Readers care a lot about the street kid issue
Monday, June 07, 2004
W ednesday's column on street youths seems to have hit a pinched nerve.
An overwhelming majority of readers who responded agreed with my concern that downtown Portland has become a round-the-clock hangout for dysfunctional youths.
And it's not just their numbers that are scaring residents and scaring away tourists. It's their aggressive behavior. Too many of them are foul-mouthed, menacing and brass. Poverty has become an easy excuse for acting poorly when they're "spanging," asking for spare change.
"I came from San Francisco where homelessness is an art form," e-mails Cecilia Don, who says she moved here three years ago. "And for some reason, it is very noticeable, troublesome and somehow feels VERY threatening here."
Downtown is generally safe and draws thousands of families to social events, to art galleries, theaters and Tom McCall Waterfront Park. But some readers say they refuse to go downtown because they're intimidated by the roving posses of street youths and their dogs. They've stopped recommending it to out-of-town visitors. And they're reluctant to take young children there.
One downtown businessman who lives in Northeast Portland e-mailed me but didn't want his name used. "Many of us, myself included," he wrote, "drive garage (home) to garage (downtown) to garage (home) and never leave the building because of this problem. . . . It's easier just not to deal with it."
As the economy worsens, panhandling is noticeably increasing at freeway exits and entrances, strategic intersections and along shopping meccas, such as Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard.
"The homeless youth are particularly aggressive and offensive, acting as if each passerby owes them their 'spare' change or a spare cigarette," e-mails Elizabeth Kahl, who has worked on Hawthorne off and on since 1996. "I know that this district has been known for its liberal attitudes, but this is ridiculous."
Others called for more sympathy toward street youths until Portland does more to address the root causes of homelessness. Many of the teenagers are there, some readers pointed out, because they have no place else to go.
"Do you think children chose abusive or addicted families or abandonment," asks Bruce Anderson of Southeast Portland. "Do you suppose this might screw up one's socialization?"
Darrell Tuffli of Beaverton also sympathized with the street youths. But, he added, police should be confronting them more when they're caught -- in public -- expelling their waste or drinking booze, especially if underage.
"To be fair," Tuffli says, "the street youth . . . are generally dirty, smelly, loud and obnoxious and often very drunk, but also funny, decent and congenial when others take time to show some respect and interest in them."
Several programs, such as Outside In and p:ear, are doing an impressive job catering to homeless youths. New Avenues for Youth is launching a new initiative to specifically encourage hard-core street kids to turn their lives around. There are efforts that are working.
But those services are also attracting homeless to move here, too. And now that it's getting warmer, even more hobo teens will join the downtown panhandling parade. That will discourage even more shoppers, tourists and businesses from spending the money to strengthen the economy so we can afford to pay for more services for the homeless.
It's a perpetual cycle that helps no one. And it is tarnishing our city's image when visitors notice that our teen homeless population is more obnoxious than those in most other cities.
One e-mailer suggested that we all adopt a no-cash policy, since a good number of street youths use our sympathetic offerings to buy alcohol, illegal drugs and piercings.
"Stop giving them money," e-mails Nancy Moore. Instead, she says, hand them a card that tells them where they can get access to services. Donate money to programs, not people.
Spend your compassion wisely.
S. Renee Mitchell: 503-221-8142; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.oregonlive.com/news/oregonian/renee_