Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Portland’s Homeless: The Effect on Tourism

Walkers from across the United States and Canada
enjoyed a marked trail through downtown Portland
(or did they?)
It was a wonderful sunny morning. In town were several hundred visitors on their last day of a walking convention. They had walked in the scenic areas of Bend, Lincoln City, Salem and Vancouver, WA. This Sunday was the last walking event for most of them before they left for their homes across the United States and Canada.

Organizers had mapped out routes taking the recreational walkers to major points of interest in Portland. They routed the 12K walkers through downtown to the Rose Garden and back through Old Town. The shorter route, 6K, just routed walkers through The Pearl and Old Town (mostly Old Town). 

The route was map guided and marked with arrows. Walkers were on their own to walk at their preferred pace and see the sights. Organizers did their best to provide walkers with a positive experience. They gave them a list of points of interest. It was well organized. I know because I walked the 6K myself.

But what remained with many of these visitors, especially the 6K walkers, were visions of the homeless population of Portland, the littered streets and the stench. Sunday morning comes after Saturday night. Revelers left remnants of their late night snacks on the streets. The homeless were bedded down on corners and in doorways. Many had their worldly possessions with them in shopping carts, plastic bags and crates. It was early morning so they were still trying to sleep. It was a mess. It was sad. And it didn’t smell very good.

Some homeless are creative in the way they
request money.
This man makes small sculptures out of cans. 
As a local, I was well aware of the issue of homelessness in Portland. I knew that there were shelters, transitional programs and many resources to help. I also knew that these services were overloaded and many homeless came to Portland in the warmer months because the city was known as tolerant and sometimes welcoming to those with social problems. The seasonal homeless are called “travelers.” My walking friends are called “tourists.”

As we walked… past the iconic Voodoo Donuts, past the Lan Su Chinese Gardens, shouting erupted. Two women were arguing. Their profanity echoed in the empty streets.

One woman from Virginia walked alone. She was approached by a panhandler. He was aggressive and she, a retired Air Force Officer, was intimidated. The walk left her with an unsettled feeling.

On went the walk route toward the historic train station, passing the Greyhound Station where many more disheveled people loitered in the sun.
Portland has beautiful architecture to enjoy.

This wasn’t the first time I had walked in central Portland early in the morning. But it was the first time I was hit so hard by homelessness. I saw things through the eyes of visitors… from small Midwest towns, large eastern cities and pristine mountain villages. They felt that this was the worst they had seen in their travels. All towns and cities have social problems. But are Portland’s the worst?

I thought of how Portland’s social problems must impact tourism. Certainly tourists want to go to Powell’s Bookstore, walk along the waterfront, visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden and take home a coveted pink box of Voodoo Donuts. For them, there is no escaping visions of the homeless. There is no avoiding being asked for money by panhandlers. Not unless you skip Portland!
Summer attracts out of town travelers with no funds who add to the
homeless population.

Do I have the answer? Certainly not. But I now know that street issues can do nothing good for tourism. And, apparently, all the resources in place now are not making a visible impact. 

The walkers who stepped over garbage and felt twinges of compassion as they passed the homeless men and women huddled in their sleeping bags that beautiful Sunday morning were left with a rather haunting memory of Portland.

Here is what the City of Portland is doing for the homeless. They see the problem. But are their interventions soon enough?