We should cater to tourists not panhandlers
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
My very best friend from college, Miriam Russell, visited me over Memorial Day weekend, just months before she plans to move to Paris.
But after briefly being exposed to my three young children and my Pekingese dog, Russell decided to stay on the 20th floor of the downtown Hilton executive tower. No pets. No children. No noise.
But something else disturbed her -- and scared her, too. On Sunday morning, on every block for four blocks, she was confronted with street youth in packs of twos and threes, and their dogs.
"The people who were waiting with me for the store to open, we all kind of talked about it as well," Russell says, "because we all noticed them."
During the work week, when scores of people are milling about, the bands of young folks -- in their black, body-pierced, grunge look -- fade into the background like a computer screen saver. We've grown so accustomed to their daily presence that we tolerate their visual and verbal disruptions.
But at night or on weekends, when many working people and shoppers are in their own neighborhoods and fewer folks are filling in the sidewalk blanks, the street youth seem more intimidating.
This is especially true for women travelers, says Joe D'Alessandro, president of the Portland Oregon Visitors Association. Women shouldn't have to wonder whether going outside of their downtown hotels alone is a safety hazard. It also doesn't help matters that the ratio of panhandlers to police officers walking downtown is shamefully inequitable.
"It made me feel unsafe," says Russell, who has traveled to many major American cities and overseas by herself.
"Typically when I see a homeless person, he's like in a doorway or under a bridge or just trying to get out of your way. I hadn't really experienced homelessness like this before."
The celebrated book "Fixing Broken Windows," by George L. Kelling, divides street people into three categories: "have-nots," "cannots," and "will-nots." The "have-nots" are temporarily homeless, and their problems can be solved with social services.
The "cannots" are veterans or folks who suffer from mental illness or substance abuse. They deserve compassion because they cannot fix their own issues. The "will-nots" are street hustlers by choice. And they are primarily the folks making people uneasy.
"We have probably more visitors alerting us to that fact then we ever have before," D'Alessandro says. "We're very concerned about that."
Two years ago, D'Alessandro and the Portland Business Alliance pressured Mayor Vera Katz into enforcing the city's existing rule against blocking public sidewalks. At the time, Katz took heat from homeless advocates, but since then, her leadership on this issue has remarkably slacked off.
The sidewalk rule is still not a bad idea. It's just being badly executed. And now we have noticeably more "will-nots" begging for change, hanging out downtown with their dogs and trying their best to attract attention.
At the same time, the city is stepping up its efforts to emphasize Portland as a tourist destination. Katz wants a professional baseball stadium to bring more tourists. The city wants a convention-sized hotel to attract more tourists. The Parks Bureau is starting to promote its programs to tourists, too.
But no one in City Hall is addressing a key issue that could make all of those efforts for naught: A perception that downtown Portland is unsafe.
"This has a real important impact on our economic vitality," D'Alessandro says. "I am concerned that if we don't figure out a way to address the issue, we could suffer from it long-term. It takes a long time to rebuild your reputation once it's damaged."
The "will-nots" -- who can afford to take care of a dog but can't buy themselves lunch -- don't need our money or sympathy. They need to be prevented from scaring tourists and sabotaging our city's reputation in the process.
And Portland needs a mayor with the backbone to make that happen.
S. Renee Mitchell: 503-221-8142; firstname.lastname@example.org