Wheeler: Portland emerges from tough challenges with a bright future
Portland is here to stay.
We are a city of strong, determined and creative people. While last year's challenges tested our resolve, we have the opportunity and responsibility to shape and build a brighter future. To get there, I'm focused on three priorities in my second term: homelessness, community safety and livability.
Homelessness continues to be Portlanders' top concern. While we made important progress in my first term, the challenge evolved, and our tools must evolve with it. I see what you see: too many Portlanders living outside.
We are working on many fronts to fight this humanitarian crisis. We are ahead of schedule building homes with investments from the voter-approved Portland Housing Bond. From 2018 to 2019, we helped nearly 6,000 people find housing. In 2019, we opened more than 400 shelter beds. And in 2020, we created new city-sponsored outdoor shelters and hardened them for winter.
We've purchased hotels to shelter people at high risk of COVID-19 and used our closed community centers to provide safe alternatives to street camping. And last year, voters passed a once-in-a-generation ballot measure that will double our resources for helping chronically homeless people access the services they need to transition to housing.
We recently issued a request for proposals for new shelter alternatives with our partners at Multnomah County. Helping our most vulnerable neighbors find safer alternatives to our sidewalks, highway underpasses and naturals areas is the right thing to do, and it supports our vision of a healthy, vibrant community for everyone.
With the new money on the way from last year's ballot measure, we hope to partner with our county colleagues to build on our system and bring new resources to Portlanders who need our help. Our goal is that no one in our city is forced to sleep outside.
My second priority is community safety.
Right now, we're responding to a gun violence epidemic that is disproportionately harming communities of color. Our Office of Violence Prevention is expanding its capacity and collaborating with community leaders to prevent and treat the causes of gun violence and the trauma it creates. We're partnering with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies to leverage resources and share information.
We've increased the number of police officers available to investigate shootings. We're adding more outreach workers to support victims and their families and help people who are at risk of becoming victims. And, we're identifying other city programs that support community so we can enlist them too. We need to use all our tools, and create some new ones, to end the cycles of violence on our streets.
In addition, too many Portlanders — particularly Black Portlanders — have felt unsafe for too long. The Black Lives Matter movement is challenging everyone, including my colleagues and me, to look holistically at our public safety system and realign it to better serve our community.
That includes a transparent, accountable police agency with a clear mission and a healthy culture, and well-funded non-law enforcement alternatives — like the Portland Street Response, behavioral health services for people in crisis, homelessness navigation centers and others.
We've taken steps to clarify the role of our police bureau and expectations for its work. Last June, I announced a 19-point police reform action plan. Twelve actions are done, and the others are underway. My colleagues and I redirected millions of dollars from the police bureau's budget. We took steps to demilitarize police equipment. We moved police off TriMet and out of schools. We increased investments in equity and diversity in the police bureau and across the city.
And, we've asked the community to help us with important decisions — for example, our Portland Committee on Community-Engaged Policing is digging into the question of what core patrol services mean in Portland. I look forward to their recommendations.
We're also making progress on the voter-approved police accountability measure and negotiations for a new police union contract that increases community trust.
The challenges facing other public systems show up in calls to 911. We will continue to work with our partners at Multnomah County to increase access to services for mental health, substance use, and other behavioral health needs. We will continue to advocate for more federal and state investments in affordable housing and safety net services. And, we will continue to learn from the community as we shape systems of care for Portlanders.
The third priority for my administration is livability. Portland is a special, unique place. People are proud to live here. And still, the things we love about this community have been tested.
First off, we're long overdue for a deep clean. Our streets and shared public spaces are clogged with litter.
Early pandemic guidance from public health experts led us to pause important cleanups to keep people safe. Despite this temporary pause, the city picked up more litter from our streets in 2020 than ever before. And this January alone, we collected more than 800,000 pounds of trash. This problem is solvable, and we're gearing up to get it done. I hope you'll join us over the next handful of months as we safely gather to give our community the spring cleaning it deserves.
The virus-caused recession also is challenging our unique economy. We're a small business town and famous for our neighborhood main streets and our restaurants and bars. Local businesses are hurting due to the stay-at-home orders that keep us safe. While foot traffic is down in cities across the country, it's hitting our neighborhood business districts especially hard.
The Portland City Council quickly distributed $15 million from the CARES Act to help keep businesses afloat, and while we wait for wider vaccine distribution and fewer public health restrictions, we will continue doing what we can to protect and nurture our local economy.
That includes standing against the ongoing criminal vandalism and the self-described anarchists who are eroding our economy's foundation of local, small businesses and healthy, vibrant neighborhoods — and pulling police resources from other priorities.
We are working with partners to identify and hold people responsible. We're putting more officers on the street, and we're adapting our tactics to involve affected neighborhoods and small businesses in our planning and help clean up and repair any damage.
There are reasons for optimism. Businesses are beginning to reopen, kids are set to return to school, and spring is on the way. We were quick to act at the start of the pandemic, which has kept our community safer than most. According to ECONorthwest, our compliance with public health guidance saved 2,000 lives in our community — friends, family members and loved ones who are still with us.
And so, I begin my second term clear-eyed but optimistic, and with a strong focus on our shared values and my top priorities. I promise to do my part. Together, we will bring Portland back stronger and better than before.
Ted Wheeler is beginning his second term as Portland's mayor. On Friday, March 12, he will deliver a virtual State of the City address as part of the City of Club of Portland's "State of the Possible" series. The online event is from noon to 1 p.m. Learn more at https://www.pdxcityclub.org/upcoming/
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