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Monday, November 29, 2010

Why downtown Portland is failing

Forget being a new-found terror target. According to the landlords trying to attract businesses there, a big part of downtown's decline is the panhandlers.

Their story makes sense. It's what first-time visitors to downtown Portland most often remark about -- a prominent feature of our bizarre theme park. Go by streetcar!

Comments (43)

OK, Jack, I'll bite. As best I can tell, every effort to deal with this by passing regulations has been struck down by the courts. Various approaches involving providing services to help address the issue continue, as highlighted in the article you linked to. So two questions:

1) Are you willing to try to amend the freedom of expression clause in the Oregon constitution to make it easier to regulate this behavior?

2) Short of that, do you have suggestions for the what the City of Portland can do to productively address this behavior?


Just spent 2 different days walking the streets of NYC:
- 34th to 61st on both Lexington and Madison
- 57th to 34th on Ninth (Hell's Kitchen)

Not one panhandler! Only solicitation was near the Plaza when I was asked to support a Homeless organization.

And of course, near Macy's there was an anti-fur crowd, safely contained in a cordoned area, with police making sure the protesters didn't bother the shoppers and tourists.

Now, I am not naive. I know there are pan-handlers in NYC, as well as muggers, and other ne'er-do-wells. I must have avoided those areas this trip.

But perhaps PDX could learn a thing or too to attract the shoppers and tourists.

Of course, NYers are pretty savvy - they know not to encourage the freeloaders.

Actually, the Sidewalk Management Ordinance currently in effect has not been challenged in the courts, let alone struck down, nor is it likely to be without some kind of very strong evidence of selective enforcement. But it also isn't terribly effective and won't solve the problems its backers perceive.

Money well spent would be to round them up, charter some buses and drive them down to Los Angeles, non stop. You would have a lot of takers this time of year.

Short of that, do you have suggestions for the what the City of Portland can do to productively address this behavior?

The police should do whatever it takes. Within the bounds of the law, of course.


The city should exclude the aggressive panhandler types from the cornucopia of social services that we are providing.

Maybe ban them all from an exclusion zone -- y'know, make believe Mayor Creepy caught them with a handgun.

We're real good at bending the rules when we want to. Not on this, though.

Or I guess we can just do without a downtown that most people ever want to go to.

Panhandlers and urchins have always been an issue around Pioneer Courthouse Square. They never really bothered me that much. Traffic changes and loss of retail have more to do with why I don't go downtown than panhandlers.

The first step is to get over the increasingly bizarre insistence from some quarters that this isn't a problem.

Lots of Portlanders seem to assume that when businesspeople say something is bad for business that they're just lying or whining.

At some point enough of Progressive Portland needs to have the epiphany that when they say it's "bad for business" what they mean is that, yes, it's actually, truly bad for business.

Chris Smith, services are good and the right thing to do. The problem is that services are like a bucket (i.e. they have finite capacity), but need is a faucet that never turns off. When the only approach is "we need more services" there is no end game there. There is no point where you get to say "Now we're done. That's enough services."

"Panhandlers and urchins have always been an issue"


"loss of retail"

2+2 = ?

The first step is to get over the increasingly bizarre insistence from some quarters that this isn't a problem.

I'm over it. I'm looking for things to productively do short of violating constitutional rights.

You're not thinking about these street people the right way. Each one of them represents taxes not collected from the rest of us and public money not spent on social services. A thrilling kind of victory for the stridently self-reliant.

God bless Sisters of the Road and other homeless advocates for all they do; they are truly doing the Lord's work. However, they are being shortsighted when they oppose any new anti-panhandling ordinances or the stepped-up enforcement of old ones. If panhandling keeps people out of downtown, then that can depress economic activity (if we take business owners at their word, and what's their incentive to lie about this?). If economic activity is depressed, then there are less taxes collected that can go to support homeless services, and less money for businesses to donate to charities. While we certainly shouldn't cater to suburban hothouse flowers who get the vapors if they get asked for change, the homeless agencies must keep in mind that they, too, ultimately benefit from a safe, comfortable downtown environment for visitors and shoppers.

It is a problem - I noticed a huge increase in numbers around 2000, when I returned to working downtown after a couple of years working on the eastside. And, it's not just a problem for businesses - anyone who catches a bus or Max to and from work walks a gauntlet of people, dogs and trash trying to get to their stop.

If there are services available, I would think those on the street have an option - take advantage of the services, or get off the street.

"While we certainly shouldn't cater to suburban hothouse flowers who get the vapors if they get asked for change"

Strawman. Plenty of people who live, work and pay taxes right here in Portland do not like the panhandling spectacle downtown.

Chris Smith, so what are your productive thoughts on the problem?

If other cities can do it, why can't we? The main reason my wife and I do not go downtown to shop or for night life is the panhandlers, street "kids", street corner 'advocates", "musicians" (ie people banging plastic buckets) crime and general sense of disarray. So long as they are considered "colorful street people" and part of the "flavor" of downtown Portland many people will continue to go to the suburbs.

Would it be legal to ticket people who give money to beggars? Or, if not, then pass the law anyway, and never actually give out a ticket, or always dismiss the citation immediately if a recipient challenges it, so nobody could ever have standing to challenge the ordinance in court? The city could recruit a dozen consultants/ allies/ etc. to get the ticket and complain to the press, thus advertising the possibility of ticketing, and then the city could reimburse them for the cost of the ticket and pay them for their excellent acting. The point is to give gullible/ threatened prospective donors the ability to tell beggars "I want to help you, but I can't because I'd get a $500 ticket." Hey, it's an idea. They do this kind of thing all the time with other issues, so why not with this?

I'm a native Portlander and have moved out and back in a number of times. On one occasion, visiting from San Francisco in 1984, I was shocked at how much cleaner Portland seemed than SF. Now it's the other way around. The panhandlers never bothered me. The trash does. What happened to civic pride? I think it starts at the top.

I've travelled to a lot of foreign and American cities in recent years and I've not seen a city with as bad a street problem as Portland. Most recently I was in the city that is always compared to Portland - Austin, TX. Almost no panhandlers. Chris, why not look at what other cities do? Some require panhandlers to obtain business licenses. Others restrict where panhandlers can operate. Some cities post signs discouraging people from giving to panhandlers. Maybe we could ban people from giving to panhandlers. If the problem is the Oregon constitution, then let's change it. Why do Oregonians need greater free speech rights than is provided by the US constitution - just to allow panhandlers to operate? Chris, if you want my vote in an upcoming city council election, you're going to have to do better than through up your hands in the air.

I meant to say "throw" up your arms in the air.


The city should exclude the aggressive panhandler types from the cornucopia of social services that we are providing.

Maybe ban them all from an exclusion zone -- y'know, make believe Mayor Creepy caught them with a handgun.

So...what you're saying is you don't have a solution either...?

How do you define "aggressive panhandler types" in a way that's meaningful for a solution? How do you then identify those people? If someone is aggressive and mentally ill, does it make sense to take away whatever services he is receiving?

Is there any evidence that taking away services actually makes the situation better?

Having worked right next to Pioneer Square for more than a year, I acknowledge this is a serious problem. Although it doesn't affect when and where I walk, I know it makes our city look dangerous and dirty to some tourists, and I'm not surprised that it keeps some locals away.

We need to find a solution, but I don't think it's as easy as the hardliners suggest.

Smith, since NYC and Boston (and several others) are handling the panhandler problems better than Portland, why don't you ask them for their solutions. There are numerous articles and research available to help you out besides giving them a call. They seem to be respecting "constitutional rights".

For Portland, I think just enforcing some existing laws would help, like enforcing littering laws, Dope laws, trespassing.

Well, the bible says that the poor will always be with us and, like most things in the bible, that's an unverifiable claim but it sure feels true.

Here's the creative solution for any merchant weary of the interminable panhandling in front of their business: offer the loiterer a safety vest a really nice sign declaring that the homeless person has been awarded that particular spot on the sidewalk for panhandling. Maybe a small signing bonus as a motivator too. Customers feel they're giving change to somebody who has earned the endorsement of the store, Store can reduces the number of panhandlers (other non-endorsed panhandlers surely couldn't compete on the same stretch of sidewalk) as well as providing a mechanism for responding to bad behavior or customer complaints, and Panhandlers get some very slight imprimatur of legitimacy that could lead to more donations and serve as an incentive to more considerate behavior. Civilize the situation by informally formalizing the relationship.

My office is right on Pioneer Courthouse Square, and I walk the four block radius daily. I see the homeless youth with dogs on the exterior of the sidewalks, with signs or just lounging. NEVER have I been hassled by any of them. Those who ask for money I politely tell no. No problem.

NOW let's turn to the obnoxious signature gatherers, with their cheesy grins, outstretched hands, really aggressive 'talk to me' tactics, on every corner of morrison and broadway. THESE people are offensive. And pushy. Let's ban them first.

I've noticed that in the last week someone has been handing out noisemakers, usually in the form of loud bells to these vagrants. Isn't there some sort of disturbing the peace/noise ordinance that could be used to get rid of them?

I try to have meal tickets for Sisters of the Road. When offered most street folks decline the free meal.
As a business and property owner these panhandlers are a detriment to business and property values.
The community needs to make these folks less welcome by not giving money, making the door sleepers move along, and any other non violent method of making these folks uncomfortable.

shopping malls with attached parking can exclude panhandlers because it is private property. This significant advantage over Downtown make a huge difference in where people choose to shop. Until there is some way to convert multiple blocks of Downtown to private ownership - like a mall, with parking inside the private perimeter - The shoppers will choose the malls.

If regulatory options fail us (as they seem to do) and the 'carrot' approach with services is not making enough difference, then perhaps we need a 'cultural' change. Would these folks still be there if no one was giving them money? Maybe a City-led education campaign to keep your change in your pocket and give to the service organizations instead?

Let me make a bold suggestion for discussion (I am myself not yet decided on this). Perhaps we should indeed consider toning down the freedom of expression clause (if only as far down as what the U.S. constitution provides for freedom of speech). The stronger constitutional language in Oregon is responsible for at least three sometimes troublesome issues:

1) A right to pan handle
2) An inability to limit campaign contributions for state and local races
3) A very high bar for ANY regulations on locating strip clubs

Time for a discussion?

Oh puh-leeze.

Stronger constitutional language?

It was Hans Linde's fantasy that the 80 or so drunks assembled at Champoeg in 1859actually intended anything different in the Oregon constitution's Article I analog to the First Amendment. Linde read into the Oregon speech provision his own mid twentieth century political positions and got away with it because the illiterates at Champoeg didn't contemporaneously write anything like The Federalist Papers.

lw -- Can't speak to what Boston or any place else has done about panhandling, but NYC vastly increased the amounts of money spent on diversion courts and housing and treatment programs, coupled with greater enforcement of panhandling restrictions. This started in the 1990s, when the city was flush.

Part of the problem here is that we don't have effective carrots or effective sticks in place. Based on, at least, NYC's experience, I'd say you need both. We don't have streamlined mechanisms for helping people get out of whatever traps their in. The amount of affordable housing across downtown has shrunk, service providers are operating at capacity, shelters run out of space. However desperate your circumstances, you can pretty much find a meal a day, but that's about all you can count on. It used to be people dealing with substance abuse or addiction, people running away from abusive situations, or people just down on their luck, could find cheap rooms by the night or the week, could find informal work situations, maybe just washing dishes or cleaning up for a few days here & there. Most of that kind of thing is gone -- the real estate barons who squeeze every nickel of profit from every square foot downtown and the politicians they fund have seen to that.

A lot of the younger panhandlers downtown pretty much have only each other to look out for them and only trust each other, often for good reasons given their histories with adults who were supposed to be caring for them. It's not easy to reach them. But if the PBA thinks it can help, it could start by asking them what they think would help.

"do you have suggestions for the what the City of Portland can do to productively address this behavior?"

Stop spending 90% of every development dollar downtown and let nature take its course and let downtown die a faster death than it is. Invest instead in schools and infrastructure instead of 5 mph trolley cars.

Ask any merchant on the MAX how much that helped his business - NOT.

Come on your going to tell me the most liberal sanctuary city and beatnik capitol of the world can take care of the trash and we can't? Maybe the samrand twins should go have a steam bath with twosome neusom to get some new green ideas.


I'm so glad I moved out of Porkland. And so very tired of stepping over dog droppings and drug addicts when I'm on the bus mall.

I thought I'd look at other city panhandling ordinances. This one from St. Paul, MN seems like a good one:


I like the part where it prohibits solicitation (vocal appeal requests [of] immediate donation of money or other item from another person) in a public or private property where there is a posted "no solicitation" sign. That seems pretty straight forward.

I like the part where it prohibits solicitation (vocal appeal requests [of] immediate donation of money or other item from another person) in a public or private property where there is a posted "no solicitation" sign. That seems pretty straight forward.

And the Oregon Supreme Court says such a restriction is unconstitutional in this state.

Chris, you amend the state constitution. In a state with ballot initiatives every election, it's not that difficult.

With all the money the city spends on lobbying (including hot nights at Bluehour with Don Mazziotti), maybe it could go down to the legislature and get something on the ballot.

You can have PC Bumtown or a vibrant downtown. Guess which one Portland City Hall picks.

My office recently relocated downtown near the Congress Center building on 5th and Salmon. I am amazed at the people watching freak show that is downtown Portland. I hate walking the gauntlet of dirty teens with puppies on ropes, bums and dopers of all shapes and sizes. Other than buying lunch I never shop downtown and would never bring my kids downtown.

Walking around with some co-workers for lunch today it wreaked of vomit in the park across from the Federal Court house. Not conducive to fine dining to say the least.

Michael M., what do you mean Portland doesn't have "effective carrots and sticks in place"?

Our per capita expenditures for the problems is more than NYC or Boston. We have over 100 non-profits that work on the problems. We've had two 10 Year Plans to end homelessness. Were into our 6th year of the second. We're creating more of the problems and decreasing it by our totally acceptance of bad behavior.

Chris Smith needs to extend the trolley to Salem and work on his and many other's suggestion.

All I Know is that after coming back to Portland to visit family for Thanksgiving I was appalled at the number of vagrants, punky kids and panhandlers downtown. Much worse than in Sacramento, Reno or even San Francisco for that matter.
Not to mention the huge number of vacant shops downtown.

Who cares about panhandlers?

While walking through his cornfield, Ray hears a voice whisper, "If you build it.........

Maybe the city could hire a cadre of acting coaches and unemployed english majors who have aspirations to write... and they could, together, come up with unique and plausible stories that panhandlers could use on the street to scam surburbanites out of their money.

That way people that would otherwise feel threatened, instead get to bask in their (false) charity and altruism on the drive back out to Sherwood for helping that disheveled woman out who couldn't quite afford ers diabetes drugs at the pharmacy, or, say, the guy who's truck was stolen and couldn't afford the taxi cab back home.

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