PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Business owners and cultural groups in Old Town say their neighborhood has become a haven for organized crime and called on the city and county to take action during an Old Town Community Association press conference.

“Old Town is in crisis. Everyone living and working here is suffering,” Society Hotel owner Jessi Burke said.

Burke said she sees a humanitarian crisis on her doorstep daily.

“If you come to Old Town, over time you will see two segments of the houseless community. The actually vulnerable and those preying on the vulnerable,” Burke said.

Elizabeth Nye, director of Lan Su Chinese Gardens, also spoke about the violence in Old Town.

“Three weeks ago, as our staff prepared to welcome visitors, they discovered an abandoned car parked outside of Lan Su smeared with blood along the side,” Nye said.

She says they later learned a homeless person there was beaten to death.

Burke also noted that the pandemic caused Old Town to reach a “tipping point.”

“Coupled with empty store fronts, trash build up and city infrastructure falling into disrepair, visitors too scared to approach our neighborhood and drastic cuts and resignations in public safety, a new crowd made their way to Old Town. A more dangerous crowd. Over the past two years, organized crime has moved to Portland,” Burke said.

She says that “organized crime” sees an opportunity in Portland.

“The market opportunity in Portland, is a city divided and in chaos. We’re well aware of the public safety shortages in our city. I know the sound of machine guns. I’ve seen a fight with hatchets. I’ve seen drug dealers light peoples’ tents on fire and a woman die of an overdose while being trafficked out of her tent,” Burke said.

In a conversation about gun violence Saturday, police told KOIN 6 News “the number of shootings involving homeless individuals and large transient camps seems to be up significantly.” 

The FBI in Oregon also said a significant amount of shootings are tied to the homeless population.

Old Town cultural institutions and businesses put together a list of safety goals for their neighborhood in the next 90 days, including reducing property crime, removing graffiti, moving illegally parked cars and “increasing street light lumens.”

In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury explained “I understand the frustration that businesses and residents in Old Town are feeling. I’ve been hearing from folks all across our County who are frustrated as well. It is well documented that during this pandemic, some residents and businesses did exceedingly well financially, and too many others are still struggling. The County is working to improve things in Old Town, understanding that the city and county bring different tools to the table. The City of Portland’s role is to operate the police/public safety, the fire department, water, street repairs, parks and trash.”

Kafoury said Multnomah County does not have the authority “to police an incorporated area of the city of Portland, like Old Town. Nor do we have a fire department, water bureau, street repairs or trash pick up.”

However, Kafoury pointed out, “within our authority for health and social services, we are working to add shelter beds back and strengthen behavioral health services. We just invested $1.25 million for three behavioral health in-reach teams located in Portland’s Old Town. The program will operate in partnership with Blanchet House, the Mental Health and Addiction Association of Oregon and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare. The goal is to have teams activated at key times during the day where they can help people who are struggling on our streets. These teams will be up and running shortly.”

Kafoury also said the Health Department is investing $258,000 towards vector control services to mitigate rodent issues within the city, including Old Town and noted the county is supporting Old Town shelters including Doreen’s Place, the former Greyhound Station, the Old Town C3PO village and another at the River District Navigation Center in the Pearl.

“Both C3PO and the Greyhound Shelter were initially going to be temporary, but were able to stay open thanks to federal COVID funding. In addition, the City is going to locate a Safe Rest Village, through a contract through the Joint Office, on a plot of land across from the Navigation Center. The Joint Office is also expanding a mental health outreach team operated by Cascadia that’s based out of the former Royal Palm, right in Old Town,” Kafoury said.

Kafoury added “once COVID restrictions lift, we expect to have 2,200 people in shelter across the County – 800 beds more than what prior to COVID. And that doesn’t include Safe Rest Villages and other projects in the works. We work in Old Town too and we know how important these steps are for our neighborhood. We’re there every day – our largest department, the Health Department, is headquartered across from Union Station.”

KOIN 6 News asked if they think city leaders are doing enough now, Burke says she doesn’t know but thinks there’s a lot that can be done.

KOIN 6 News also reached out to city and county leaders about this.

In a statement, Commissioner Mapps said “I support the Old Town Community Association’s 90-day plan, especially the goals of reducing 911 call answering times, improving lighting in the area, and reducing tent camping by one-third. To reduce tent camping in Old Town and other parts of Portland, we need our local shelter providers to lift their 50% capacity cap so that we have humane places for campers to go. The City of Portland and Multnomah County must work with our community partners to address these issues in our core and every other neighborhood.”

In a statement to KOIN 6 News, Mayor Wheeler said “The requests made by the Old Town Community Association today are very reasonable. Oldtowners are asking to go to work peacefully, attend college, make a living, or visit Old Town’s unique stores, bars, restaurants, and cultural attractions. I intend to help them in the weeks ahead and ask others to join with me. Portland Oldtowner’s never-give-up attitude deserves our full support.”

Commissioner Hardesty told KOIN 6 News “I want to acknowledge that what we see in Old Town and other areas of Portland is unacceptable human suffering. There are people in crisis and people experiencing extreme poverty and we do not currently have enough mental health beds for those in need, nor enough housing that working people can afford to live in. We need urgent action on those issues.

With the bureaus I oversee, I am always interested in creative ideas generated from Portlanders and appreciate this proposal from the Old Town community. Civic Life’s graffiti removal program has recently expanded and improved. PBOT has already been in conversation with community members in Old Town and other parts of the City about lighting improvements. PBOT’s Healthy Business Program that allows outdoor seating has continued to operate at no charge to business owners, and soon we will have exciting next steps to announce about the future of this program. Later this month we will announce in Old Town that Portland Street Response is ready to start taking appropriate crisis and behavioral health related 911 calls citywide.

My office will review the feasibility of these proposals and continue these conversations across the City, as we seek opportunities to partner with community members around their ideas within the resources we have available.”

Commissioner Rubio said “I want to acknowledge the deep concerns I’ve heard and thank Jessie Burke and the Old Town Community Association for their work. They have a partner in me, my office, and my bureaus. Their clear goals align with work we are currently doing: to expand and strengthen Portland Street Response, to fill PPB vacancies, to diversify our community safety system so that Police and Fire can focus on higher-need public safety matters. Their goals also underscore our work with the County and State – to purchase hotel space, to set up Safe Rest Villages, and to grow our behavioral health services.”

Additionally, Commissioner Ryan told KOIN 6 News “I am grateful to the Old Town Community Association for their resilience and the initiative they are taking with proposing this 90-Day Reset Plan,” said Commissioner Dan Ryan. “Every Portlander should feel safe as they live, work, play, and worship in every neighborhood. Old Town has long been an epicenter of the many challenges that face our river city. I will evaluate the tenets of this plan and am committed to implementing any concrete solutions that will improve safety and livability for Old Town. I also call on service providers to increase shelter capacity, which has been at 50% since the start of the pandemic.”