“It’s been a downhill slide for four years with little improvement,” USGS manager Darwin Crammond said at one point during a Portland City Council meeting held Wednesday. Both Crammond and his associate director Alexandra Ethridge had signed up for a chance to offer their perspectives on just how bad things have gotten downtown where their USGS office is located.

Alexandra B. Ethridge, a new Portland resident and associate director at the U.S. Geological Survey, told city commissioners how the environment outside the Oregon Water Science Center in downtown Portland has “deteriorated.” The worsening encampment brings “targeted crime” against work trucks and leaves colleagues feeling a sense of despair from “simply not feeling safe,” Ethridge said Wednesday.

“Many of us are spending lots of time on Band-Aid measures, such as creating emergency contact cards, creating personal safety plan templates and documents or attending trainings with security professionals,” Ethridge told commissioners. “Meanwhile, employees continue to feel that nothing will prevent an inevitable personal injury because of continued exposure to targeted crime.”

The explosion of a propane heater at the encampment last year shattered office windows, and there have been recurring instances of arson and an “unplanned presence or uncontrolled use of a firearm,” Ethridge said.

“I’m saddened to see some of our lowest-paid employees have to make some of the biggest personal sacrifices to uphold our mission in the setting,” Ethridge said. She described how workers employed to do community-based watershed scientific research must spend time documenting instances related to the camp in federal and city systems to prevent “victim blaming if something awful occurred.”

After she spoke, council member Jo Ann Hardesty, a major supporter of defund the police efforts in the city, spoke for several minutes, saying she could hear the genuine pain in her voice. But after saying all of that, Hardesty then turned to the idea that the city would eventually come back in a “more equitable” way. “We have to keep our eye on the prize. Where are we headed and who will we be when we start rebuilding from this pandemic?” Hardesty said.

Next up was Darwin Crammond, the manager of the USGS office downtown. He echoed a lot of the concerns Ethridge had expressed emphasizing his responsibility for the safety of his employees. Four years ago, he said, they’d had some vehicle break-ins and vandalism but they put those incidents down to the “sad realities of living in an urban center.”

“In the last two years those sad realities have grown into intolerable conditions,” Crammond said. He continued, “We’ve had two burglaries at our office. We’ve had at least two sets of camps at our office and at our secure parking facility. When at last they are cleared out, the denizens immediately return and resettle…Drug dealing is rife and we often have to step over discarded needles and sleeping forms in our doorways to get to work.

“Employees have had many dangerous and threatening encounters with unhinged residents of these camps. Trash and human waste are everywhere. The effect on my employees is direct and tangible. Reasonably enough, employees do not want to come to work in this environment. And beyond that, many are showing signs of trauma related stress. Productivity and morale are suffering. We’ve had to initiate a buddy system just to be outdoors.”

Crammond said people were moving on to other jobs because they didn’t want to deal with the conditions anymore. “We are facing an existential threat as a downtown business,” he said. He added that moving the entire office away from downtown Portland was now under consideration.

In response to this several members of the council said they completely agreed with his assessment and wanted to do all they could to help him and others facing this situation. Finally, Mayor Ted Wheeler spoke for several minutes, saying he knows this is the number one issue facing the city but arguing that the problem had become too big for the city along to manage. He said the council was trying to secure help from regional and state government as well as the federal government to address the problem.

“Sitting here listening to you, I agree with everything you said,” Wheeler said. He added, “I hear you and I hear it all day long…I ask you to stay with us. You’ve stayed this long.”

Crammond was then given a chance to respond. “With the current drug policy of decriminalized possession of a whole slew of different drugs, one piece that’s missing is the will of the Portland police…to issue the $100 ticket that is the entryway into the drug treatment stream for these people. That policy needs to be changed,” he said.

Secondly, he responded to Mayor Wheeler’s request that he stick it out. “I personally am willing to stick this out, partner and do whatever is necessary, but you have to understand that as a business manager and a representative of a federal agency I’m being driven by forces outside of my control,” he said. “As a citizen, I’m here with you but as a manager of a federal agency, the writing is on the wall unless there is significant improvement. It’s been a downhill slide for four years with little improvement.”

My own takeaway from watching all of this is that the council knows it has a serious problem but feels there’s little they can do to solve it without outside resources which, despite this problem lingering for years, are not in place. It wouldn’t be fair to say they’ve given up or don’t care, but I doubt Ethridge or Crammond walked away from this meeting with much hope that things might change anytime soon.

Portland did make one change this week. After a report found that 70% of pedestrians killed in traffic crashes were homeless, Mayor Wheeler is preparing a new emergency declaration to remove homeless camps along roadways. We’ll have to wait and see if this has any impact on this one isolated problem.

Here’s the video of the council cued up to Alexandra Ethridge’s statement, which is followed by Darwin Crammond’s statement.

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