In the summer of 2020, Portland, Oregon, became the poster child for American urban disaster zones. During the day, tens of thousands of citizens protested peacefully against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But everything changed after dark. Nonviolent demonstrators with jobs, school assignments, and kids to raise went home; hundreds of anarchists swarmed in to take their place and waged a low-grade insurgency against the city. They fought pitched battles with the cops—throwing rocks, frozen water bottles, fireworks, buckets of excrement, and even Molotov cocktails. They attacked coffeehouses, immigrant-owned restaurants, mom-and-pop retail stores, banks, museums, churches, bus stops, and the Multnomah County Democratic Party headquarters with baseball bats, crowbars, and hammers. Most were military-age white males wearing all-black clothing and hiding their faces. The violence kept up, night after night, week after week, and month after month, into the winter, long after the rest of America had calmed down. My city had become the most politically violent place in the country, and I got worried e-mails from people I knew around the world—even in the Middle East!—asking me if I was okay and why on earth this was happening.
A crime wave followed. Shootings and homicides exploded 300 percent between 2019 and 2022, robberies rose 50 percent in 2022 alone, vehicle thefts hit record highs, and work-order requests for graffiti removal shot up 500 percent between 2020 and 2022. The City of Roses suffered 413 shootings in 2019 but 1,306 in 2022 and nearly twice as many homicides as San Francisco, though Portland is only three-fourths its size. Meantime, statewide crime actually declined from 2019 to 2021.
The homelessness crisis also intensified. The slow-motion collapse of Oregon’s mental-health infrastructure, a dramatic surge of cheap and deadly fentanyl and a far more potent and addictive form of psychosis-inducing meth, and a crippling housing shortage led to the formation of more than 700 tent cities in residential neighborhoods and business districts across the city.
But while it’s too soon to declare that Portland’s troubles have passed, the worst may now be over. Despite ongoing woes, Portland looks and feels much better than it did in dystopian 2020. The riots stopped, and the crime wave seems to have peaked, with shootings down by nearly 40 percent and homicides down more than 50 percent in the early months of 2023. A sober mood shift has taken over the city. Voters passed a ballot measure to restructure city government, while the three newest elected officials on the city council are steering Portland in a different direction. The city, county, and state are taking steps to reverse the decline.
Portland is suffering a serious livability crisis. Eighty-eight percent of respondents in early 2022 told the Portland Business Alliance that the quality of life is worsening. Portland is hardly the most dangerous city in America: the homicide rate in St. Louis is more than four times higher, with 65 murders per 100,000 people, compared with Portland’s 15 in 2022. Portland’s rate peaked at more than double the national average, but of all the cities with higher crime rates than Portland, only Chicago gets as many national headlines. That’s probably because Portland’s increase in crime was the worst in the country. No other city’s homicide rate rose so spectacularly. And unlike St. Louis, Baltimore, and other notorious hot spots, Portland was recently a destination city that touted its high quality of life as a reason to move there.
Of late, though, rather than attracting new residents, Portland has actually lost population, either to the suburbs or out of state. “I’ve never seen money move out of here,” commercial real-estate salesman Stu Peterson told Willamette Week. “Nobody ever wanted to leave Oregon. It’s a beautiful place. Most evacuees are high-wage earners who are fed up with the crime, taxes, and homelessness, in that order. There’s an ugly spiral.” Real-estate agent Justin Harnish described a client who left downtown Portland for the suburb of Lake Oswego after she saw a woman stab another woman in the face with scissors.
Accompanying the crime wave is a drastic staff shortage at the Portland Police Bureau. Portland now has fewer than 800 sworn officers, a smaller number than it had decades ago, when the city was barely half the size it is now. And with the surge in violent crime, the police have little time to deal with anything that isn’t life-threatening. Prioritizing shootings and other emergencies, they’re forced to neglect break-ins, stolen cars, vandalism, and just about everything else. The traffic police unit has been defunded, reduced to a single full-time traffic cop—not for ideological reasons but because the city has no one to staff that division.
Part of the blame rests with the months of demoralizing anti-cop violence in 2020, but Portland would probably be short of police officers anyway. Every city agency, from fire and rescue to the transportation bureau and the public defender’s office, faces staff shortages now. And while a shrunken police force didn’t cause Portland’s crime wave on its own, a police department that can barely react to anything but emergency calls aggravates the problem. Criminals behave as though they can get away with essentially anything and commit far more crimes than they would if they were investigated, arrested, and prosecuted swiftly. The Woodstock neighborhood, where Joe Biden won 88 percent of the vote, is considering hiring its own private security force.
Drugs and addiction helped fuel the crime surge. Criminals in the drug trade commit roughly half the city’s shootings and homicides, and addicts who need to pay for their next fix commit a huge percentage of break-ins. The opioid epidemic is a nationwide crisis, but it has alarmingly accelerated on the West Coast over the past few years. Fatal overdoses more than doubled among Portland’s homeless population in 2022 alone. The statewide legal structure also changed in 2020, when Oregon voters passed Measure 110. That vote didn’t legalize hard drugs, but it decriminalized possession of small amounts, under the theory that addiction is a disease that needs treatment, not a crime.
Measure 110’s architects say that they modeled it after Portugal’s successful drug decriminalization in 2001, but that’s only half true—at best. The difference between Oregon’s approach and Portugal’s is vast. Measure 110 directs tax money raised from legalized marijuana into addiction treatment programs, but it took nearly two years for the state to spend the money, and addiction to fentanyl and meth mushroomed during the gap years. The overwhelming majority of addicts refuse treatment when it’s available anyway, even if it’s free. One year after implementation, only 1 percent of those cited for possession sought treatment.
Unlike Oregon, Portugal doesn’t passively offer treatment; it all but compels it. And in September 2022, Stanford University addiction policy expert Keith Humphreys, speaking to the Oregon legislature, lambasted lawmakers for getting Measure 110 spectacularly wrong and ignoring what Portugal actually does. He told KGW News: “Because the West Coast has an individualistic culture and significant tolerance for substance abuse, social pressures to seek treatment are also often minimal. . . . Portugal, which is often cited as the inspiration for Oregon’s drug policy, places heavy social and legal pressure on addicted people to seek treatment. . . . Oregon is not following Portugal’s example and will not get its results.”
Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt’s tenure as Portland’s chief prosecutor has proved controversial since his term began in May 2020—coincidentally, the very month when the anarchist riots kicked off. Elected on a reformist platform, he declined to file charges against most of those arrested for rioting, even when their crimes included burglary and the unlawful use of a weapon. He routinely releases violent criminals within days of their arrest and declines to file charges against violent people if they’re mentally ill.
A victims’ advocate named Vanessa Palacios made headlines last summer when she quit Schmidt’s office and left a scathing letter to her boss on her way out. “Your office is falling apart, and the victims along with it,” she wrote. “Everyone in this office shows up each day to fight for victims, everyone but you. You have let defense attorneys run this courthouse, and now our office.”
In early December 2022, a man named Joseph Ibrahim randomly attacked a woman downtown. He came up behind her, struck her in the head, and knocked her out. She woke to him leering at her, and she thought he was going to kill her. Bystanders intervened, and police arrested him a few blocks away. But according to her, the next business day, the DA’s office told her that it was releasing Ibrahim. Schmidt’s excuse: Ibrahim was a first-time offender. A few days later, wielding an iron fence post, Ibrahim invaded a home while a family was having dinner.
Stories like this are in the local news constantly, and the state deserves blame for at least some of them. Consider the man who attacked a father and his five-year-old daughter across the river from downtown while screaming anti-Japanese slurs (the victims were Asian American). He was set free a few hours later, per a new law that lets even violent first-time offenders be released automatically, without a bail hearing and without being seen by a judge. If a belligerent adult who punches a five-year-old girl doesn’t belong in jail, who does? Prosecutors and advocacy groups for crime victims and Asian Americans began pushing to have the law scrapped.
According to an Oregonian poll in October 2022, almost two-thirds of state voters think that the criminal-justice system isn’t tough enough on criminals. Just 6 percent think that the system is too tough. And with only a 2 percent difference between the Portland metropolitan area and the state as a whole, there’s no statistically meaningful urban–rural divide on this question.
As far as smaller crimes go, the Multnomah County DA’s office prosecutes just 46 percent of misdemeanor theft cases. By contrast, Washington County and Clackamas County, both suburban counties in the Portland metropolitan area, prosecute 93 percent and 84 percent, respectively.
Portland’s suburbs generally enjoy the same low levels of crime and disorder that they’re long accustomed to and that are in line with Oregon’s declining crime rate. “I’m seeing a tale of two cities,” suburban Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton said to KOIN 6 News in 2021. “I’m seeing Portland, and I’m seeing everybody else. . . . There’s clearly a fire happening in Portland right now. Question is, can they put that fire out, and can they keep it from spreading to Washington County?” Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote responded similarly: “The current DA in Multnomah County, who has no real life experience doing any of this, comes in with his ideology. None of his ideas are time tested anywhere.”
In 2016, the last year of his term, former mayor Charlie Hales permitted homeless street camping—an “experiment” that he undertook via executive order, over the city council’s objections. The Safe & Livable Portland coalition sued him for what it called “an abuse of power.”
The mayor didn’t set out to legalize hundreds of tent cities. His idea was that homeless people could pitch tents at night, and take them down and clean up the site in the morning, as if they were backpackers in the mountains following the wilderness ethic that encourages campers to “leave no trace.” That’s not how events unfolded. Instead, sprawling homeless encampments spawned citywide virtually overnight, some extending for blocks in residential neighborhoods and business districts alike. Trash, human waste, used needles, rat infestations, and other biohazards piled up alongside homes, businesses, and schools.
Hales terminated the policy in the summer of 2016 after it proved disastrous, and Mayor Ted Wheeler rolled it back even further when he took office in 2017. But undoing urban camping after it has been normalized is difficult. Further complicating the city’s efforts is the Martin v. Boise ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018, which says that cities can’t enforce camping bans unless they provide homeless people a place where they can legally go, whether a shelter or an authorized campground.
These encampments bring chaos to every neighborhood where they’re established. A miniature city of campers and RVs appeared near a retirement community in Argay Terrace after the city forced them away from Parkrose High School. “It’s pure hell,” resident Bambi Alvey told KGW News. “I wake up every morning looking out my window at the homeless people looking through my window back at me.” Camp people routinely steal from residents and run loud generators all night. “Every morning I go out, I look out my window to see what they have stolen out of my yard,” another neighbor said. “I’m about at my breaking point,” said a third. “I’ve had enough of it, and I’ve been thinking about moving.” Residents say that they’ve called the police repeatedly, but the local precinct admits that it has never dispatched an officer.
Mayor Wheeler describes the homelessness crisis as “a vortex of misery”—and it is, for the homeless themselves and for the communities where they camp. The city’s light touch is enabling: well-intentioned acts that seem compassionate but that prolong self-destruction. In December 2022, Kevin Dahlgren, a longtime local community health-services advisor, tweeted a short video interview with a homeless woman named Wendy, who said that being homeless in Portland is a “piece of cake, really.” She added: “I mean, that’s why you’ve probably got so many out here. Because they feed you three meals a day, you don’t have to do shit but stay in your tent or party. . . . It’s like you wake up, you go eat at Blanchet [Blanchet House, a nonprofit that feeds homeless people], and get high. Go eat at Blanchet for lunch, get high. Go eat dinner, get high. That’s all you do, all day long, every day.” She later clarified her remarks to say that she was not talking about herself, but the interview went viral. Dahlgren later told KOIN 6 News that “multiple homeless have said that the system is ‘loving us to death.’ They hate the idea that they’re being enabled. They may not say no to it, but they still don’t like it. What they want is to be empowered. They want responsibility.”
In 2020, most Portlanders seemed to take the city’s rapid decline in stride. And it’s true that Portland looked worse from a distance than it did up close. There were only about 200 anarchists, nowhere near enough to wreak havoc on every street in a city comprising 145 square miles, roughly one-third the size of New York. Though every neighborhood in and around the urban core experienced vandalism, including mine, Portland hadn’t become Baghdad. Some neighborhoods never noticeably declined.
The media sometimes make things appear worse on a day-to-day basis than they are (a phenomenon I noticed while working as a foreign correspondent in war zones, where countries suffering daily terrorist attacks and even military invasion looked and felt startlingly “normal,” as long as I was away from the front lines). Not every street saw gunshots and trash. The upside to this dynamic: even bad times aren’t necessarily as bad as one might imagine. The downside is that one can remain in denial and allow problems to fester.
Portlanders could deny the problem only for so long, however. The city was in worse shape than I’d ever seen it, and almost certainly in worse shape than it had ever been. Anger about the objectively bad conditions and the seemingly inert response from city hall, the district attorney’s office, and the police simmered. In mid-2020, you had to live there to see it, hear it, and feel it.
I spent more time talking to my neighbors that year than I ever had before or have since. A lot of us suddenly became friendlier outside our houses, and we weren’t talking about sports and the weather. Residents and business owners alike worried about where things were headed and expressed dismay at the city’s inability to defend itself. I didn’t talk with a single person who thought that everything was okay, that city hall was on top of it, or that the anarchists were not a menace. And nobody could understand why the homeless camps at the elementary school down the street or at the park hadn’t been cleared. No, I didn’t conduct my own scientific public opinion survey, but it was obvious that regular people were nearing the end of their rope and that the status quo was bound to be upended.
In 2021, that’s exactly what happened. A tsunami of outrage inundated the mayor, the city council, and the police bureau. Phones rang nonstop. Furious citizens shouted at meetings. Newspaper editors published scathing letters, and journalists at mainstream outlets covered distressed neighborhoods and interviewed disgruntled citizens while largely ignoring the activist set that booed every conceivable solution and told civilians that the problems were in their heads. Lawsuits against the city proliferated. Polls showed city council members languishing on political death row, with approval ratings in the teens.
Though most residents still wanted accountability for bad cops and citizen oversight of the police bureau, the complaints were primarily about crime, about how the police hardly ever show up anymore, and about disorder dragging neighborhoods down. Even some of the fashionable middle-class neighborhoods endearingly satirized in the Portlandia comedy series were enduring weekly gunfire.
In the fall of 2022, 82 percent of Portland respondents in an Oregonian poll said that they wanted more cops. If some Portlanders felt overpoliced a few years ago, hardly anyone felt that way after the chaos, with a mere 15 percent saying that they wanted fewer officers in 2021.
Before the city council elections got going in 2022, voters fired repeated warning shots in public opinion surveys. An overwhelming 85 percent of respondents said that they found the city council ineffective, with a clear majority describing it as “very ineffective.” For a while, it looked as though Portland was gearing up to fire every single official in a landslide election.
Two city council members, Dan Ryan and Jo Ann Hardesty, ran for reelection last year. Ryan managed to defy expectations and win despite the temper in the city, though it’s easy to understand why: he set aside his ideological views and changed with the times. Though he first ran during a special election in early 2020 on a campaign promising to cut police funding, he soon reversed himself. Anarchists vandalized his home seven times because he refused to cut the police budget.
Hardesty didn’t fare as well. Pushing bills to defund the police and opposing the cleanup of homeless camps, she put herself wildly out of step with her constituents. Mingus Mapps, a moderate on the council who had easily dispatched the left-wing populist Chloe Eudaly two years earlier, endorsed Hardesty’s challenger, Rene Gonzales, and bluntly said: “It is time to put ideology aside and elect people who will fight for Portland. I need colleagues who use debate, reason, and logic to solve our many crises.” Gonzales said, “Our once beautiful city is struggling in ways that were unfathomable a short time ago. . . . City hall’s ineffective, ideologically driven policies are ruining the city we used to proudly call home.” Gonzales won, and Portland replaced the city council’s last progressive firebrand with a centrist. It was the kind of event that marks the end of an era.
All along, the most frustrating part of Portland’s downward spiral was how blasé city officials were. Call the police, and they say they’re too busy. Report a homeless camp on an elementary school playground, and it’s still there, months later. Call in an open-air drug market, and nothing happens. Report your twelfth break-in this year, and the city sends thoughts and prayers. If the cops do manage to nab the culprits, the county often puts them right back out on the street.
But Portland is now scrambling to hire as many new police officers as it can, with as close to unanimous approval as one can reasonably expect, though training new hires and shepherding them through the academy will take time. The city is also rolling out new Portland Street Response teams to deal with nonemergency mental-health and behavioral-health calls, which became an increasingly heavy part of the police workload before the cops became too overwhelmed to handle it anymore.
In October 2022, just weeks before last year’s election, Mayor Wheeler (who was not up for election that year) announced a plan to ban unsanctioned camping in the city, phased in over 18 months—and, as a court-mandated alternative, to build six 250-person homeless “campuses,” each divided into two sections for 125 people, where camping is authorized and which include on-site sanitation, security, and addiction and mental-health services. Wheeler promises that these sites will be located as far from residential neighborhoods and business districts as possible.
The proposal infuriated progressive activists and self-described experts who think that it will be “harmful and counterproductive.” Yet the plan enjoys more than 80 percent support among Portland residents, and it won nearly unanimous backing on the city council, with only Hardesty voting against it before she left office. Leaving aside the devastating impact of more than 700 homeless encampments throughout the city, abandoning distressed human beings to live in filth and garbage with zero security and no structure or services is appallingly cruel. Not a single person aspires to live like this, and advocate protestations aside, nobody will miss these camps when they’re gone. “I have these so-called experts telling me I’m inhumane!” Wheeler said. “Because I’m asking people not to occupy our public spaces wall to wall. At some point for me I’ll take common sense over expertise.”
Some neighborhoods have already gotten relief. My wife and I moved to a historic suburb two years ago from Portland’s inner-southeast Sunnyside neighborhood, where our house was sandwiched between two chronic homeless camps, one at an elementary school playground and the other at Laurelhurst Park. I learned to avoid both areas on my daily walks but still had to endure garbage, untreated mentally ill folks screaming at invisible enemies, people picking through my trash can, drug-addled people passed out on sidewalks, and so on. But I visited the old neighborhood recently and found it restored to normal. Both camps were gone, with one permanently dismantled for a pickleball court and a skate ramp.
On November 2, 2022, the city council unanimously passed resolutions to create diversion programs and paid jobs for the homeless, affordable housing, and targeted mental-health and addiction services. Multnomah County is taking an even more radical step with a program to pay landlords a year’s rent to house homeless people, starting with those living in and around downtown Portland before housing people farther east. This isn’t a sustainable solution, since nothing is stopping the homeless population from replacing itself by drawing from elsewhere in the city, from neighboring counties, and even from neighboring states (the Oregon–Washington state line runs right through the Portland-Vancouver metropolitan area). But governments scramble during emergencies, and voters won’t allow the city, county, and state to let this emergency fester any longer.
At the same time, Oregon has a new governor, Democrat Tina Kotek. She nearly lost to the moderate Republican Christine Drazan—partly because she competed in a three-way race but mostly because outgoing governor Kate Brown left office as the least popular governor in the United States. Brown had neglected, utterly, some of the state’s most urgent problems. Roughly half the state’s population lives in the Portland area, and Brown likely would have lost had she run for reelection herself. But Kotek proved different, perhaps because she herself is from Portland. She saw the same things everyone else saw. On her first day in office, Kotek issued three executive orders: one creating the Housing Production Advisory Council, with the goal to build 36,000 housing units per year, an 80 percent increase over current levels; another declaring a state of emergency regarding the homeless population in parts of the state where homelessness has risen by more than 50 percent since 2017; and a third to reduce the homeless population even in parts of the state that have not seen steep increases. These orders by themselves fix nothing, of course. The devil will be in the details: some efforts will work better than others, and some might not work at all. But Kotek nevertheless did more to address Portland’s crisis on her first day than Brown did in her entire time in office.
Is Portland changing its trajectory? Denial, buck-passing, and excuse-making seem to have yielded to urgency, honesty, and reality. The sour mood has softened, and expectations are rising. The mayor promised to reduce fatal shootings by at least 10 percent, but so far in 2023, they’re down by more than 50 percent. In a public opinion survey published in February, 78 percent of respondents said that quality of life in Portland was declining—still a terrible number, but 10 percentage points less than a year ago. At least rhetorically, elected officials are taking these problems seriously. “A significant number of people on our streets are very unwell,” the mayor said. “We did this to ourselves, and we did it intentionally with 30 to 40 years of neglect of our mental health infrastructure in our state. It took decades to get where we are, and it’s going to take a long time to dig ourselves out of the hole.”
Top Photo: Frustrated residents may be dragging the famously progressive City of Roses back to political sanity. (ELIJAH-LOVKOFF/ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES)