The disorder that has long dominated the streets of Portland, Oregon reached a new low earlier this month, when Columbia Sportswear, a major retailer headquartered just outside of nearby Beaverton, had to close its flagship store downtown for a day after protestors blocked shoppers from entering. The protestors were reacting to an op-ed by Tim Boyle, Columbia’s CEO, in which he confessed that relocating his company to downtown Portland may have been a mistake, citing the crimes and indecencies his employees have endured, including “daily defecation” by transients in the store’s lobby. Certain repeat offenders of the city’s vagrant population, along with other agitators, have issued death threats and broken into cars; one Columbia employee had to run into moving traffic after a stranger followed her and threatened to kill her.
Boyle, who is considering closing his store permanently, was right to call these events “outrageous and unacceptable,” yet Portland mayor Ted Wheeler has offered excuses rather than confronting the issue. On Thursday, Wheeler blamed his city’s wave of homelessness on the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, attacking Secretary Ben Carson for failing to “provide solutions.” Meanwhile, the city has been reluctant to deploy the crime-prevention resources that it already has at its disposal to address the homelessness wave.
The situation faced by Columbia Sportswear represents a broader problem facing progressive cities like Portland, which have increasingly tolerated vagrancy and tent cities, pressuring law-enforcement to take a “hands-off” approach to policing homelessness and other social disruptions. While this approach may be kindhearted, residents and businesses shouldn’t have to suffer the consequences. The harassment faced by Columbia Sportswear employees is no outlier; similar abuses have roiled the small-business community across Portland. On Black Friday, Anne Bocci, who owns an upscale art and jewelry boutique that prides itself on not being “a big corporate business,” encountered the same type of terrifying situation when her store was robbed. “He stole from me and he threatened my life, twice,” said Bocci of her assailant—a repeat offender in downtown Portland. She added that, “the police came and then he came back four minutes later after they left.”
Judith Arnell, another jeweler, will be closing her doors after doing business in Portland for over 20 years. “The biggest problem is that the customers feel unsafe, so I can’t afford to save this,” Arnell noted. She also recalled that a surveillance camera caught a man defecating outside of her front door, and that this wasn’t the first time that it had happened.
Business owners recently took their outrage directly to Mayor Wheeler’s administration. Kevin Pilla, owner of the home-goods store Budd and Finn, gave a scathing critique of city government, his store having been broken into just a few nights before. Crime “is literally killing my business,” Pilla announced. “There are no consequences.” Business owners are right to be outraged.
The city’s policies on street homelessness have had disastrous results not just for the business community but also for average Portlanders. An urgent shift to enforce standards in public safety is needed. For starters, Wheeler should dramatically boost police presence in the parts of downtown Portland that contain most of the transient camps. The mayor has announced plans to install “no camping” signs and heighten security, but these have yet to materialize. Meantime, his plan to offer security training to small business may be well-intentioned, but it also signals surrender. Mom-and-Pop shops should not have to take classes on how to secure their businesses, and their customers should not accept harassment as normal. Wheeler should give police the go-ahead to take a more hands-on approach to dealing with transient residents and agitators who threaten public safety. Police shouldn’t feel constrained. New standards in sanitation enforcement must be implemented throughout the city, too.
Having allowed the crisis to grow to this scale, the city government will need to take bold steps to demonstrate its commitment to shaping up the city. Genuinely needy citizens deserve help, but harassment or violence by transients and vagrants is unacceptable. Wheeler’s response thus far has been shameful. Businesses and residents should demand an urban bill of rights, holding their leaders accountable for guaranteeing standards of safety that everyone should be able to take for granted.
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