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Portland finds it's hard to disentangle the rise in crime from the housing crisis

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In Portland, Ore., officials are responding to business owners' concerns about crime and public safety, in part by targeting homeless encampments. NPR's Katia Riddle reports.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Standing outside his company's headquarters, Jason Bolt recalls a recent day. He was walking on this block with a colleague.

JASON BOLT: As soon as we got around that corner, a guy ran out of the RV with a knife and came at us.

RIDDLE: What surprised him in that moment was how desensitized he'd become.

BOLT: Kind of lose sight of, like, that person is suffering big time. If they're chasing you down the street with a knife, yeah, of course, I'm terrified. And we need to deal with that from a law enforcement perspective. But also, why are they doing that?

RIDDLE: There's so much of it that you can't see it anymore.

BOLT: Yeah. And that's my biggest fear is like we as a population lose that ability.

RIDDLE: Bolt is the founder of an eyeglass lens company called Revant. This light industrial area seemed safe enough when he moved his business here five years ago. But things turned bad, especially during the pandemic.

BOLT: Yeah. So at its worst here, we had - you know, we had a lot of trash and bikes and cars being disassembled here.

RIDDLE: Across the country, car thefts in cities were up 14% in 2021. Business owners in this neighborhood have also been dealing with break-ins and threats to their employees' safety. Bolt describes a complex ecosystem that arose in the neighborhood, one that turned on the sale of drugs and stolen goods.

BOLT: So there was open-air chop shops on pretty much every block surrounding our building.

RIDDLE: Bolt says so many tents and RVs crowded the sidewalks that he and his staff had to walk down the middle of the street to get to work. Recently, a group of businesses in this neighborhood publicly threatened to move out of the city altogether unless something changed. In response, the city has implemented a strategy it calls a 90-day reset. Here's Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TED WHEELER: Problematic camp removals increased by 450%.

RIDDLE: Problematic camp removals, otherwise known as sweeps. Remove the homeless camps from these neighborhoods, says Wheeler, and you'll get rid of the crime. Here he is discussing outcomes of a similar effort in a different neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHEELER: Drug offenses in Old Town were down 51%. Trespassing was down 93%.

RIDDLE: Wheeler says those dramatic changes demonstrate a connection between homeless camps and crime in these neighborhoods. There are more than 5,000 unhoused people in Portland. Homeless advocates point out that these sweeps affect both those involved in criminal activity and those who aren't. A few miles away is a nonprofit called Blanchet House. Joshua Rasmussen is eating lunch and warming up here. He says he's witnessed many sweeps.

JASON RASMUSSEN: Some people - I don't know. They can't stand losing all their stuff.

RIDDLE: Rasmussen gestures across the street to an encampment that he says is frequently swept, and it's traumatic.

RASMUSSEN: It drives some people wild.

RIDDLE: He says, often people just start screaming when they find their things missing. Brian Mitchell is sitting a few tables away.

BRIAN MITCHELL: I understand that they want to make the neighborhood better.

RIDDLE: Mitchell lived for some time in a tent, even while he was working and going to school. Sweeping camps, he says, forces unhoused people to live in constant fear.

MITCHELL: Because they have to sleep somewhere. They have to rest somewhere.

RIDDLE: Mitchell found a better place himself to rest recently. He moved into a shelter. He says the only way to solve problems around crime and homelessness is to meet everyone's needs, especially those who have the least. Katia Riddle, NPR News, Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Katia Riddle