City leaders at packed Lents ‘Town Hall’

Find out what four-fifths of the Portland City Council learned, when they came to the meeting organized by Lents neighbors to address livability issues and concerns …

More than 200 people come to a Town Hall held in outer East Portland – to share their concerns about livability in the Lents neighborhood.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

“People here in Lents are begging for help,” is why Lents Neighborhood Association (LNA) Livability Committee Chair Jennifer Young, with “a lot of help” from about ten others, put together at Town Hall meeting at the Lents Activity Center on Tuesday evening, April 4.

Even as the meeting was getting underway, at 7:00 p.m., more people were still streaming in the hall. Ultimately more than 200 attendees filled the seats, leaving others to stand along the walls.

On his way in, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler holds an impromptu press conference with TV station news crews.

Town Hall moderator Jennifer Young listens to a neighbor’s concerns.

“We were talking with Lents residents over the past year, and people say they are feeling a real lack of support – that we’re left to fend for ourselves – which led us to put together this town hall,” Young told East Portland News. “We want the Mayor and the Portland City Commissioners to learn about Lents, and to acknowledge the inequity; we want resources, respite, and help, and we want to forge a more collaborative and equitable relationship with city leaders.”

Portland City Commissioners Chloe Eudaly, Dan Salzman, Amanda Fritz and Mayor Ted Wheeler listen to the opening presentation.

Young took the microphone and began the meeting by thanking the elected officials and their staffs for attending; the Lents Seventh-day Adventist Church for providing the venue; and the many members of the LNA Livability Committee for their work in putting on the meeting, developing the PowerPoint presentation, and producing the video shown during the Town Hall.

“The goal of the Livability Committee is to represent all residents in a way that is inclusive and respectful,” Young explained, remarking that she is a 20-year resident of Lents. “I started doing a lot of outreach, both as a member of the Association and of the community, and I’ve been been involved in this conversation over the last year and a half – discussing livability issues with neighbors, and learning their concerns.”

The issues Young listed included:

  1. A lack of feeling safe in our neighborhood,
  2. A lack of law and rule enforcement, and,
  3. A lack of resources.

Theirs is a “resident-driven agenda”, Young pointed out.

LNA Secretary Joanne Luchini, also a member of their Livability Committee, sets the rules of decorum for the meeting.

Looking up to a hand lettered sign on a large piece of brown paper taped to the front wall, LNA Board Secretary Joanne Luchini asked all to follow these behavior tenets:

Be yourself – your best self
Assume good intentions
Listen Respectfully
“One mic – one diva”
Step up, then step back
Use nonviolent language
Know that you, and your participation, are valued

“Despite ‘home being where the heart is’, it’s extremely difficult for people, both un-housed and housed, to have the opportunity to be our best selves if we don’t feel safe, or we feel that we are not being treated equitably,” Luchini said.

“It is particularly difficult for communities, both housed and housed, who are only managing to survive or on the fringe, or are marginalized, or deemed as ‘the other’ or ‘less than’, to speak out,” Luchini continued. “We need to insist on being invited to the table, no matter how difficult it might seem. We have to do so for our collective survival.”

Speaking of the changing demographics of the neighborhood is Green Lents Program Director Adam Brunelle.

The next speaker, Green Lents Program Director Adam Brunelle, told about the group’s activities, including the “Lents Strong Action Plan”.

>> To read “Groups rally around ‘Lents Strong’ action plan”, CLICK HERE.

“We work and volunteer in teams to create a more livable and thriving neighborhood through the culture of sharing, and also environmental sustainability, said Brunelle.

Demographic statistics Brunelle presented included:

  • 1 of 2 residents in Lents is a person of color;
  • About 44% are non-white;
  • 2 of 5 people speak a language other than English at home;
  • Languages spoken include Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, Chinese, Somali;
  • 1 of 4 Lents residents were born outside the United States.

“We’ve been talking to residents for quite some time, since we were founded in 2009,” Brunelle commented, “and we’re working to find out how residents, businesses, community groups, and government officials can work together to build a diverse, sustainable neighborhood this both livable, and affordable.”

The audience listens, while Jennifer Young points out areas of concern for those living in the neighborhood.

Young’s slide presentation illustrated her point that, based on calls to the 9-1-1 Center, Lents is was the second most dangerous neighborhood in the area – and, as well, the Parks Bureau listed 75 reports of crime and vandalism and need of Park Rangers.

She then showed a breakdown of campsite reports that were put together through the One Point of Contact system. “As you can see, our neighborhood is the third highest in recorded campsites in Portland,” Young stated.

But, finding out which agency to contact about a camp, one finds “a turf war that is sort of crazy-making,” Young said, point out overlapping areas of jurisdiction, including:

  • Oregon Department of Transportation
  • TriMet
  • Portland Parks & Recreation
  • Portland Police Bureau
  • Portland Bureau of Environmental Services
  • Multnomah County

Young called the recent large-scale sweep of homeless people from the Springwater Trail a “day of infamy”, during which more than 300 people moved out of their encampments – and just moved to other locations in the neighborhood.

Concluding her presentation, Young shared these solutions:

  • Insist on equitable share of responsibility for Portland problems among all neighborhoods, not just the already-struggling diverse communities in East Portland
  • Include the voices of impacted communities in determining priorities and crafting solutions for problems – “Nothing about us, without us” – so that Restorative Justice can be served
  • Admit this is not just a “housing crisis”, and prioritize addiction treatment, mental health outreach, and enforce laws to discourage criminal behavior
  • Make the City of Portland the “City that Works” for EVERYONE

With that, organizers played a video in which several residents spoke about how the issues discussed were impacting their families and their lives.

During a break in the program, Lents neighbor Cora Potter confers with Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

Town Hall moderator Jennifer Young welcomes Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Dan Salzman, Chloe Eudaly, and Amanda Fritz to the front table for the “Question and Answer” portion of the program.

Young read a letter from a resident who lives near Lents Park, decrying the crime and unsafe conditions in the area.

“First of all I want to thank you very much for inviting me here tonight,” replied Mayor Ted Wheeler as the second half of the program got underway. “I thank the neighborhood association for the preparatory work that went into this, and I feel very much respected by this process and frankly, invigorated, that we can have this kind of forum.

“I want you to know that the facts that were presented, and the video that was shown, are having a huge and profound impact on me for a number of reasons,” said Wheeler.

Mayor Wheeler says the underlying question is one of equity.

Answering the question, Wheeler reframed it, saying, “It’s a question of equity – whether or not your neighborhood gets the same level of attention, level of service, level of responsiveness from the police and transportation, on issues of homelessness and housing.

“I think I can safely tell you the answer to that question is no,” Wheeler added.

He was one of the co-conveners of the East Portland Action Plan when he was Multnomah County Chair, and he was aware of work to make good on past promises made by government, Wheeler remarked. “Your neighborhood Association has been a powerful voice in City Hall, so we are making progress. But I don’t want to over promise and under deliver.”

Wheeler said that the community livability issues pointed are “happening nationally”, and that heroin and opioid addiction rates are on the rise.

Returning to “community policing” is one of his goals, Mayor Wheeler assures meeting attendees.

To reduce crime, Wheeler pointed out his push for the Portland Police Bureau to return to the “community policing model; getting officers out of their cruisers, have them walk in the community.”

Elected leaders “need to be a little more innovative, creative, and flexible with regard to how we address the issue of homelessness,” opined Wheeler, adding, “I want you know that I start from a position of compassion and I assume that you do too.

“I did not support the ‘tent camping policy’ and I still don’t,” Wheeler announced. “I would like to see more compassion alternatives to living in the street, living by the park, and connecting people with housing alternatives.”

Many of those in the audience respond when Mayor Wheeler says he’s never supported the city’s “tent camping policy”.

Questions about ‘zombie houses’
A neighbor stepped up and asked why “zombie houses” – structures that have typically fallen into foreclosure and are supposed to be vacant but attract campers – why those homes are not secured. “They are allowed to destroy the people that live within their vicinity, and act as safe houses for criminal activities,” the neighbor charged. “If the Portland City Council can quickly put in rules against ‘no-cause evictions’, why can’t we enforce rules about these houses, to get their owners to change their behavior?”

Commissioner Chloe Eudaly explains the role of her Bureaus in dealing with “zombie houses”.

She’s now in charge of the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and the Bureau of Development Services, said Commissioner Chloe Eudaly. She told how in 2010, several city agencies convened a study, and developed and implemented a coordinated strategy to mitigate “zombie house” issues – homes which then numbered about 700.

Eudaly pointed out that before 2016, the city hadn’t foreclosed on a property for about 30 years. “As you can imagine, it’s rather complicated, especially given the recession, just figuring out who actually owns the house; this can be a lengthy process,” Eudaly said.

Mayor Wheeler proposes two ideas that may lower the impact of “zombie homes” on neighbors.

Mayor Wheeler agreed that few of these properties had been foreclosed upon, because of the “due process to prevent government from taking people’s homes. It is, by design, very hard for the government to take people’s homes away from them – it can actually take years.”

There are two suggestions to reduce the impact of “zombie homes” on neighbors, Wheeler put forward:

  1. Have more of a police presence
  2. Put a large fence around the property, and bill the property owners for erecting the fence.

Tom Borden listens as Cora Potter asks about jurisdictional issues and making truly “safe routes to school”.

Long time Lents neighbor Cora Potter stepped to ask how city agencies iron out jurisdictional issues with ODOT and TriMet. “The MAX stations and the I-205 Multi-Use Path are dangerous; ODOT is not responsive, and it takes months for them to come out, putting our children in danger.”

Another neighbor, Tom Borden, also condemned conditions along the I-205 Multi-Use Path – especially at the Steele Street Footbridge. “Like our family, hundreds of kids cross the footbridge that [leads to the south edge] of Lent Elementary.

Parents say they’re concerned for the safety of their kids as they cross the Steel Street Footbridge between homes, Oliver P. Lent School, and the Waddles Boys & Girls Club. Map image courtesy Google © 2017

“Kids using the footbridge have to walk right by a number of homeless camps that are set up along the Multi-Use Path – and these camps fill the greenbelt next to the bridge, and are an extreme safety hazard to these children,” Borden alleged, pointing out that many kids actually cut through the encampments when leaving school and heading over to the Waddles Boys & Girls Club on SE Harold Street.

“How about a ‘no tolerance, no camping zone’ where children are present?” Borden asked.

“The multijurisdictional approach is absolutely imperative,” Wheeler responding, citing efforts near the transit station on SE Flavel Street, just east of 92nd Avenue. “We got together with TriMet and ODOT and actually did some cleanup in that area, so we’ve begun the process of collaborating. I’m sympathetic to the fact that ODOT only has two people cleaning camps – but, it’s a new day, and we have new issues confronting our city.

“Just as I have committed to a community policing model, they need to commit to making sure that their areas are safe as well,” the Mayor added. “There should be areas where we can carve out a completely safe zone where children are walking to school, for everyone’s safety.”

Commissioner Dan Salzman responds to a question about the high number of abandoned vehicles in Lents.

Abandoned vehicles
The next question posed by a neighbor was regarding the number of abandoned vehicles, both stripped cars and apparently abandoned RVs, in the neighborhood.

“The quick answer is, we can do a better job,” responded Commissioner Dan Salzman.

While this matter falls under the authority of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, of which Saltzman is charge, he said, “By the same token though, we are overwhelmed by the number of abandoned vehicles in the city.

“And you’re right, the Lents neighborhood has the largest number of abandoned vehicles,” Saltzman confirmed. “In 2012 we had a total of 7,000 abandoned vehicles citywide. In 2016 we had 27,000 abandoned vehicles, just to give you an idea of the size of the problem.

One problem, Saltzman said, was that all of the storage lots used by towing contractors are now filled to capacity. “An additional problem, and this is where we come up short, and that is 90% of the abandoned vehicles are not really abandoned, they are occupied.

“The City Council has a policy that we do not kick people out, no matter how dismal the situation,” explained Saltzman. “We could probably use a more nuanced approach, especially where there is sewage waste, and drug needles are apparent – we should take a more aggressive stance on getting those people out.”

The Commissioner of Portland Parks & Recreation, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, says she’s lobbying for additional Park Rangers to patrol in the greater Lents area.

About issues in Lents Parks and other areas under the Parks Bureau’s supervision, Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) supervisor Commissioner Amanda Fritz responded, “When I was last here in this room about 2 ½ years ago, the concern was most about camping in Lents Park. We had a discussion with the Park Rangers about what we could do with that. It’s very clear to me in the presentation tonight, that the situation is now way worse, and we need to do something about this.”

PP&R received one-time funding in October to add four East Portland Park Rangers, Fritz said. “One of the proposals that I’m asking [during City of Portland budget negotiations] is to turn those temporary positions into full-time positions. That would cost $363,000.”

‘Right to Dream Too’ camp in Lents?
Moderator Young then read a question asking whether, now that the “Right to Dream Too” (R2DToo) encampment is required to move from their downtown location, it will be relocated to the Lents area. After describing the neighbor’s frustration with the situation, it closed with: “Do you recognize the struggling communities like Lents are carrying a disproportionate number of camps?”

Promising to seek more tangible and meaningful solutions is Mayor Wheeler.

Wheeler replied, “The answer is ‘no’, and ‘yes’. No, there are conversations still continuing around R2DToo, and I’m not at liberty tell what is under disscussion, but I’ll tell you what it is not – there is no proposal regarding moving R2DToo to Lents, and you can ‘take that to the bank’. About equitable distribution – yes, we are looking for every part of this community that wants to step forward and help.

“Who I’m concerned for are compassionate people, who can’t be compassionate anymore, because the cost gets too high for them to bear,” Wheeler said. “You’ve done your bit, I’ve heard you, and I acknowledge you, so there will not be deliberate strategies that I will pursue to make the problem worse in this community.

“Quite the contrary, I will work with your neighborhood, and people in the community, to see if there are some solutions we can use to address these problems in a more tangible and meaningful way for everyone here,” Wheeler said. “That is my promise.”

For longer than two hours, the audience listens to the presentations, questions, and answers.

About the meeting, LNA Chair Judy Low commented, “This is how a neighborhood association should work. We empower the neighborhood to come together and work on an issue they’re concerned about. They’re done so, and this Town Hall is the result. I’m very proud of them.”

~ ~ ~

Thinking back on the meeting on the following day, Young told East Portland News, “We have had great feedback from the community. I feel the PowerPoint presentations and video had an impact; I think our city leaders were truly shocked at the scope of inequity and public safety issues we face.”

Looking forward, Young commented, “Time will tell; we must have follow-up. I think it was a good start at forming a more collaboration partnership between Lents and the city.

“It was empowering to finally be acknowledged, for many people here,” Young concluded.

© 2017 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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