City, County fail to stem crime

The drug epidemic and underfunded criminal justice system contributed to a wave of violence against North Portland businesses last year.

The St. Johns Boosters (SJB) quickly responded with a Reset Plan that proposed specific steps for the City of Portland and Multnomah County officials to take in North Portland starting with the hard-hit St. Johns town center.

One year later, on the first anniversary of the Reset, St. Johns business leaders are disappointed.

Multnomah County DA Mike Schmidt meets with St. Johns business owners to discuss crime, April 2023
Multnomah County DA Mike Schmidt meets with St. Johns business owners to discuss crime in April, 2023

“Is downtown St. Johns safer today?” asked Tanya Hartnett, director of Venture Portland St. Johns. “The answer is no!” She described the Reset priorities of restoring police patrols in St. Johns and increasing mental health services for homeless individuals, and pointed out that neither has happened.

Increasing police patrols is stalled because of lack of city funding and inadequate state infrastructure to train new police officers to replace the larger numbers who’ve left the profession due to stress, burnout and the perception of lack of support. 

Reset advocates were encouraged when Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt agreed to assign a deputy district attorney to meet with business owners and other victims during weekly office hours in St. Johns.

“If the purpose of getting a deputy DA here was to corral repeat offenders off the street—it’s failed,” said Liz Smith, former St. Johns Booster president. “Police might arrest the guy, but then the person’s often let out of jail the same day,” she said. “We want business owners to work and live here, but my God, it’s so hard for them.”

“It’s hard to see success,” added new St. Johns Booster president Rebekah Courpet. “The core problem is city officials didn’t agree in writing to the Reset, like they do with some other districts of the city that have more power,” Courpet said.

Smith said the city could meet the Reset goal of giving some homeless people an alternative to living in RVs and vehicles on residential streets. She supports the city’s planned 150-unit RV village near North Columbia Boulevard.

SJB members also applauded when then-County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal obtained $800,000 to fund homeless-related services in the County Health Center in the St. Johns town center at the corner of N. Lombard and N. New York Ave.

The Boosters asked Jayapal and staff to include addiction and behavioral support to help homeless individuals in crisis, said James Armstrong of the SJB Safety & Livability Committee.

The county declined to do so. It will instead convert the former Subway Shop space next to the Health Center into a 9am to 5pm day center for homeless individuals, with no on-site addiction and mental services staff. The day center is planned to open in November and will provide food, showers, job, and medical and social service referral information.

Many business owners worry that the day center will attract more homeless people in crisis to the town center and create more camping on sidewalks after the center closes daily at 5pm.

The SJBs are working with Do Good Multnomah, the non-profit that will manage the day center, said Armstrong. He owns Cathedral Eye Care not far from the Health Center and is also a candidate for one of the new Portland City Council District 2 positions. Do Good Multnomah staff is working with SJB to fund the original addiction and mental health services, Armstrong said.

The sheer scale of the Multnomah County’s Behavioral Health budget, $117 million for the current fiscal year, gives St. Johns storefront business advocates hope.

Jayapal resigned as county commissioner last fall to run for U.S. Congress. Neither she her successor, interim Commissioner Jesse Beason, were able to respond before press deadline