‘Crisis of humanity’: Old Town orgs plead for City Hall help

Multnomah County

Four Old Town organizations are asking city and county officials for the plans to add police and combat crime

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Four organizations based in Portland’s Old Town Chinatown sent a letter to city and Multnomah County officials Wednesday, expressing their concerns about the “rapidly deteriorating conditions” in their neighborhood. 

The letter, sent from Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and the Portland Chinatown Museum, told local leaders it’s past time for them to take action to address vandalism, violence and mental instability in the area. 

They said these issues have worsened in Old Town over the past three or four weeks. 

The four organizations said they have each had personal conversations with city and county leaders and they’ve shared accounts of flagrant drug dealing, fires, vandalism, verbal and physical threats, and actual assaults. 

The letter states that on a single day in September, three staff members at the Lan Su Chinese Garden experienced a combination of physical and verbal assaults. This, along with other events, prompted the garden to hire additional security and lock the front gate. 

“What we experience on our way in is staff being assaulted at the MAX platform. We’ve had a staff member who was in his car leaving Lan Su on his way home after work, he was chased by a man with a metal pipe,” said Elizabeth Nye, executive director of Lan Su Chinese Garden.

The Lan Su Chinese Garden said it feels it cannot assure the health and safety of its 2,000 visitors each week under current conditions. 

The four organizations asked Mayor Ted Wheeler, city commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty, Mingus Mapps, Carmen Rubio, Dan Ryan, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, and county commissioners Jessica Vega Pederson, Susheela Jayapal, Sharon Meieran, and Lori Stegmann to meet with them no later than Oct. 22. They hope to discuss plans leaders have to support Old Town. They want to hear the city’s plans for adding police and combating rising crime. 

They also said they need the county to step up and deploy mental health and services to the neighborhood. 

“As organizations dedicated to giving voice to those who have suffered discrimination and indignity, it is particularly difficult to recognize and respond to the crisis of humanity unfolding around us daily,” the letter states.

The four organizations represented in the letter said they face costly and consequential choices if the situation does not improve and said, “Right now, our hearts are broken.”

The groups hope the neighborhood will continue to be a place of rich history, diversity and cultural and civil rights struggles within the city, state and region.

KOIN 6 News reached out to Mayor Wheeler, Chair Kafoury and all city and county commissioners for comment.

Mayor Wheeler shared the following statement:

“The Japanese American Museum of Oregon, the Chinese Garden, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, and the Portland Chinatown Museum are treasured cultural spaces integral to our community. The Old Town district has been disproportionately affected by ongoing crisis’s facing the City of Portland. My administration has worked with representatives from all four of these cultural institutes to address ongoing concerns. It’s imperative that we preserve and invest in spaces that celebrate diversity and heritage.

“Since 2014, we have experienced tremendous progress in achieving long-term redevelopment opportunities in Old Town. We have invested in housing and commercial infrastructure, created hundreds of new living wage jobs, and welcomed dozens of new retail stores to the area. However, the bearings of Covid-19,houselessness, an ever-increasing mental/behavioral health dilemma, and limited safety resources have impacted the livelihood and wellbeing of the Old Town Historic District. The long-term effects of the pandemic have required new strategies to revitalize and support businesses and cultural organizations. We have plans in motion that will reinvigorate and strengthen our commitment to providing a safe, livable, and clean environment. We are also evaluating other resources, including those in the Fall Bureau of Monitoring Process, which will have a Council work session next week, to address direct concerns.

“My team is working to schedule a meeting with representatives from all four cultural institutions to further understand concerns and discuss immediate actions.”

Commissioner Mapps is expected to meet with the organizations to discuss shared concerns on Thursday afternoon. This is his statement:

“I hear and understand the frustration expressed in the letter from organizations in Old Town. It is one of the primary reasons I voted to extend the Clean and Safe contract, with its new mental and behavioral health resources. I hope that with the expansion of Portland Street Response, we will see added services to the area. I will work with and support the Portland Police Bureau in any effort to intervene on criminal or unlawful behavior.”

Commissioner Rubio’s statement:

“I want to acknowledge the deep concerns I’ve heard when talking with some of these organizations and community leaders, and I look forward to continuing the conversations with the additional organizations. These issues are top-of-mind every day for me: the rising gun violence, community safety, health during this pandemic, and ensuring our vulnerable communities are getting the assistance they need. Significant planning and engagement is happening as we speak to take necessary steps forward on these issues in the coming weeks, and I am appreciative to all community members for making their concerns very clear.”

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s statement:

“I hear and understand the frustrations of these cultural organizations and I know they are not alone – people are suffering throughout Portland right now. The ongoing pandemic is unprecedented and has been compounded by a series of crisis such as heat waves, wildfires, economic devastation, and a racial justice reckoning. This has been very de-stabilizing for many in our community and exposed the lack of a social safety net that exists in this country. We absolutely need to provide more humane, safe places for people currently living on our streets to exist and we need significantly more mental health resources from all levels of government. I can assure you that I am working hard every day to provide community safety for all Portlanders. If my Portland Street Response budget proposal passes later this month, Portland Street Response will expand citywide this Spring and that will allow PSR to be dispatched to appropriate 911 calls in Old Town. We have a police bureau with over 100 vacancies, and I’m focused on reforming the bureau so it has a culture that can make them an attractive employer to a diverse set of Portlanders, because right now they are having difficulty hiring anyone. We will have an opportunity in the Fall Budget Monitoring Process (Fall BMP) later this month to make additional investments that can help Portland recover from the many crisis we are working ourselves out of to create a more equitable and resilient Portland for all.”

Commissioner Dan Ryan’s statement:

“I want to thank Lan Su Chinese Garden, the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, and the Portland Chinatown Museum for speaking their truths regarding the untenable state of Old Town and their safety concerns,” Ryan said. “Our arts and culture organizations have suffered immensely during the COVID-19 crisis, and the dramatic spike in unsanctioned camping, mental and behavioral health crises, and criminal incidents have exacerbated that suffering. Old Town needs our support now more than ever. No employee, resident, or tourist should fear for their physical or emotional safety because of where they work, live, and play. I meet with Old Town business owners and residents frequently—these concerns are elevated today, but sadly this historic neighborhood has faced similar challenges for many years. I am planning to meet with representatives from these reputable institutions to collaborate on solutions. We are fighting for the soul of our City, and Old Town is the epicenter.”

Commissioner Sharon Meieran’s statement:

“I am extremely disturbed by the deterioration of conditions in Old Town described by the cultural organizations in their letter. I have spoken directly with Lan Su Chinese Garden Executive Director Elizabeth Nye about some of the significant health and safety issues confronting Old Town, and the impact these are having on the Lan Su Chinese Garden and other cultural institutions. I plan to meet with representatives from the organizations who drafted the letter – the Japanese American Museum of Oregon, Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, and Portland Chinatown Museum – as soon as possible. Old Town is in my district, and I have visited the neighborhood regularly, including as a volunteer with Portland Street Medicine and connecting with local organizations providing housing and outreach services. I have proposed solutions for addressing the humanitarian crisis of unsheltered homelessness in the area, and continue to elevate the profound need for behavioral health services. I will continue to be actively engaged and work towards solutions in partnership with the local community.”

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