Portland must stand up to predators: Guest opinion

By Guest Columnist
By David Kline, Lourdes Gonzales and Maura White

We are residents of Northeast Portland who have all worked in homeless advocacy or other progressive causes. But we are motivated to speak out about a growing problem following the attempted murder of Portland father Kasey Lebechuck, who was stabbed 17 times after confronting a homeless person trying to set up a tent camp in his neighborhood.

The opioid epidemic and over-tolerant city policing policies have enabled a whole new population of grifters and predators to insinuate themselves amongst Portland’s homeless. They prowl our streets and neighborhoods, break into our homes and cars, assault us on the streets, lurk in our backyards, prey upon anyone they can, defecate on the sidewalks, shoot up on the street or in Starbucks bathrooms and harass local businesses and their customers.

These criminals are not the innocent homeless families or veterans trapped by economic circumstance or mental illness, with whom we all empathize. They are what social workers call “service resistant.” That means even if free housing and services were offered, they would choose to live on the streets and prey on people, including those who live in homeless camps. They are dangerous, and will do whatever they need to do to feed their drug habits or their criminal lifestyle.

It’s time for the Portland’s leaders to step up and protect both the homed and the homeless, and get these predators out of our neighborhoods and into jails where they belong.

How bad have things gotten? The postings on the online community network Nextdoor spotlight the daily threats we face:

“I had a guy threaten to kill me while waving a machete,” reported someone at the children’s playground in Laurelhurst Park, once considered “the most beautiful park” on the West Coast.

“My daughter and her teenage friend were chased by a guy on SE Water Street after their dance class,” recounted another. “They don’t go there anymore.”

“My neighbor’s house on 35th and Hancock was just broken into,” wrote someone else. “A person on some kind of substance crashed thru their glass door, but was thwarted by the occupants.”

As one frustrated citizen put it, “We have no right to feel safe in our homes anymore. I have moved three times because [my neighborhood] was overrun with homeless.”

This rampant criminality has sparked a profound shift in public opinion in the last year. People have begun to realize that this new population of predatory homeless is very different from the innocent homeless — and that defending ourselves from the former does not mean attacking the latter. If anything, it means uniting with innocent homeless families to protect us all from such criminals.

The police do the best they can, but they are constrained by inadequate budgets to police these so-called “quality of life” crimes. Even when police make arrests for narcotic use, breaking and entering, defecating in the street, aggressive panhandling, burglary or car theft, the perpetrators are often quickly back on the street.

The irony is that it is precisely these “livability crimes” that erode the economic vitality and stability of neighborhoods and foster more violent criminal activity. This fact led New York City in the 1990s to adopt a “broken windows” policing policy that aggressively enforced “livability” crimes and transformed the city from a cesspool of crime into the infinitely more livable place that it is today.

But things are getting worse here in Portland. As Mayor Ted Wheeler conceded, there has been “a 97 percent increase in stolen vehicle calls, 64 percent increase in unwanted persons calls and a 32 percent increase in disorder calls.”

Yet despite this, our city has fewer police officers than it did a decade ago. The number of officers assigned to the Neighborhood Response Team responsible for livability issues has gone from 16 in 2013 to four today.

This must change. Portland residents demand that the city hire more police and bolster their Neighborhood Response Teams; aggressively enforce and prosecute “livability” crimes; remove all tent encampments from residential neighborhoods; enforce loitering-free safe zones around local businesses; and increase funding for both homeless services and neighborhood safety.

If the city fails to act, people (and the city’s tax base) will start moving out of the city. Each of us already knows neighbors who are thinking of moving out of Portland to escape the worsening filth and crime festering in our neighborhoods.

Portlanders rightly take pride in their acceptance of all lifestyles. But predatory criminal behavior is not an “alternative lifestyle.” It’s a cancer on the city and a threat to us all, and it’s time for the city to do something about it.

David Kline, Lourdes Gonzales, Maura White, Diane Zhitlovsky and Bethany Lemoine live in Northeast Portland.