I am writing to you in my capacity as a fellow resident of Portland, as an ally and advocate of the homeless community, and as an ordained minister to address your recent opinion piece posted yesterday on the Oregonian website.
First and foremost, my heart goes out to your employees who have experienced the trauma of harassment and of receiving threats from people on the street. I urge those employees to seek whatever help they may need, but I also would urge them to not let those ugly encounters shape their thoughts as a whole on the homeless people residing downtown. With regards to your company’s so-called “laptop donation program,” I must ask if those same employees left their laptops in their car when they used to live in New York City or San Francisco before coming here? A laptop in a locked car is as much an invitation for theft as it is to loudly count your cash in public. It may be picket fences and milkmen over in Alameda or Goose Hollow, but downtown Portland is still a busy, bustling American city with all the requisite side effects that come from life in the concrete jungle.
Secondly, I must ask that you take some time to reconsider your position as to what steps the city should take to help with these issues of safety as they relate to our city’s homeless population. More policing, as you propose with little other direction in your opinion piece, is a blanket solution that I foresee ending with violence. You and my good acquaintance Mr. Wheeler want to see 80 more badges on the streets sooner rather than later, but hasty hiring leads to hasty training, which leads to more bad policing.
As it stands right now, I don’t think the Portland Police Bureau is equipped appropriately to be the agency responsible for addressing the homeless crisis. In the early days of Mr. Wheeler’s tenure as mayor, five people — one of them a baby — froze to death in our streets. How could the police have prevented that? This spring, a transit officer shot — with a gun and not a taser, and multiple times in the body rather than once in the leg — and killed Terrell Johnson, a 24 year old homeless man who was in a state of mental crisis at the time of his death. Johnson had been fleeing on foot from armed officers. Why he changed course with a knife drawn, as the official report states but we cannot ascertain as no body cam was in use by any of the responding officers, to turn towards the officers we’ll never know. We can’t ask Terrell Johnson that. But we can ask why Officer Ajir’s response was considered acceptable on legal or humane grounds.
I will not beg your pardon with regards to my passionate concern for our city’s homeless. I work at Transition Projects, in a building named after Mayor Bud Clark, and I can tell you that it is our friends, neighbors, and fellow Portlanders living on the streets whose safety is in greater jeopardy. When wealthy leaders in the local business community write editorials demonizing an entire population universally as wild thieves lacking in even potty training, they are swaying public opinion. They are dissuading the public from listening to these people’s stories. They are encouraging deaf ears to greet the woman on the street running from an abuser. They are discouraging the passerby from dropping that quarter resting among the Jacksons in their wallets to the person who is 25 cents short of getting a bus ride to their shelter bed. Mr. Boyle, your opinion piece could very well be another man’s death sentence.
That you want to see police added to the force as a response to a humanitarian crisis in our city casts you in a light that is frightfully militaristic, as though we are in a war and you need more troops. To that end, I urge you to listen to yourself. Your record as a donor to local and statewide entities is well-known, beyond your $15,000 donation to Wheeler’s campaign for mayor, and it seems to suggest you’re not an unreasonable man when it comes to doing the right thing. I invite you to come spend time at the Bud Clark Commons to hear about life on the streets. You’ll hear, as I regularly do, of a population more prone than any other to violent crime, sexual assault, theft, and police violence. You will also hear the human side of homeless life that is perennially ignored.
This is to serve the greater purpose that you will know these people neither as victim nor villain, but as people. As souls. Some people make bad choices, but others experience this misfortune due to circumstances beyond their control. You are a man of immense financial wealth, but most Americans who are housed live in a reality where not receiving their regular paycheck twice would result in their homelessness. Understanding that compassion and mercy is to be shown to all, an edict put forth in literally every major faith tradition, how can you have such a myopic perspective?
As you come to know some of these people, you will come to know them as friends. Would you suggest a friend of yours struggling with a mental health issue to turn themselves over to the police? Would you say that to a friend of yours who was battling an addiction?
Again, I urge you to see homelessness not as a menace or nuisance to your employees, but as a greater humanitarian matter. Come visit the Bud Clark Commons. Get to know these people’s stories. You will find yourself wanting more for them than a greater police response/presence. (And really, I would like to know, just what does that look like to you? Perhaps, more importantly, though, is what that looks like to Mr. Wheeler and Chief Outlaw.)
You may even find yourself seeing greater unaddressed needs in our community, such as supportive resources for women facing or experiencing homelessness, for the queer community, for the trans community, for people with intellectual disabilities, for people with mental illness, for non-English speakers facing life on the streets, any number of people that your recent editorial overlooked.
Please see what the Bible has to say on this matter. It’s in the Book of Matthew, Chapter 25, verses 31–46. My sincere hope is that your heart opens, or at the very least your evidently deep wallet. If neither of those things can happen, perhaps your mouth can remain closed. All you are doing is creating noise that is neither helpful nor welcome. What would be very helpful and welcome in the future would be donations to help keep our neighbors on the streets warm, dry, and safe as we face more rain and anticipate a harsh winter.