Portland’s Twisted Values

New York City has Central Park, and Portland, Ore., has an elaborate trail system that extends throughout the city, from Forest Park in the northwest to the southwest hills.

Central Park has its nooks and crannies where homeless can hide, but nothing like the camps found in available green spaces in Portland.

Portland’s urban woods increasingly house a type of wild life that has nothing to do with Nature.

This past weekend while I was waiting for a bus near the Terwilliger Wild Lands, which is criss-crossed with marked and unmarked trails, I saw a man striding in the bike lane of a winding boulevard, headed in my direction. He had a long piece of wood he held like a walking stick.

As he got closer I saw that he was lean and muscular, with shaggy blonde hair. He approached like an angry man, and when he reached the bus stop, he roared. He pounded the air with his fist. Thankfully, he didn’t swing his walking stick at my head.

The man strode on a bit farther then darted up a path and into the trees.

Was he a homeless but harmless mentally ill man? Was he a drug addict who ruined his life and couldn’t control his behavior? Was he a criminal living among the vagrants? Makes no difference in Portland. Our elected leaders don’t want to be judgmental.

To them, Thomas Pfalmer is the equivalent of Zachary A. Young.

Pfalmer, 34, was arrested a little over a month ago after he was accused of  using a knife to threaten people near the Buhler Cutoff Trail. News reports said he had an arrest history in California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado and North Carolina for crimes like grand theft and assault and battery.

Zachary Young, 29, was very different, although he made his home near the Buhler Cutoff Trail.

This trail starts at a bus stop on a four-lane boulevard in southwest Portland and links to the Marquam Trail, which leads up to Council Crest with its grand views of the city.

Last summer I had started up the Buhler Cutoff and had gone maybe 50 paces when I saw this man. He was about 30 feet from the trail, sitting in a white plastic chair nestled among the trees. There was no sign of a camp. The white brightness of the plastic chair looked so out of place in the woods.

Normally when people encounter one another on these trails, there’s an exchange of smiles or hello. This man did not smile or say hello, and neither did I. He sat stiff and upright, gripping the arms of the chair, staring straight ahead. He wore a black windbreaker-type jacket, and even though it was early fall and not cold, he had it zipped to the neck, and the hood was up and tightly cinched around his head. His stare and the rigid way he sat – was he catatonic?

Part of me wanted to speak to him. But I’m an average-sized female, so another part of me wanted to play it safe. I continued on my way, periodically looking over my shoulder.

A few months after I encountered the man in the plastic chair, a cold winter settled in. Four homeless persons would die in Portland. The first was  Zachary Young, who was found on a wooded hillside. He died of hypothermia.

I contacted his mother and told her about the man I had seen. Although he looked older than 29, I wondered if he was her son.

“It is possible,” she said in an e-mail. “When we were finally able to view his body I was shocked to see that he had aged so much in appearance. His boyish good looks had given way to the stress and hardships of life on the streets, making him look ten years older than he was.”

Zack had been the victim of a skateboarding accident when he was a teenager and suffered head injuries, she told me. Following brain surgery, his behavior changed. By then, he was legally an adult. His family had no control over him. Since he did not appear to be a danger to himself or anyone, his family could do nothing to legally restrain him.

Portland-area politicians have embraced an almost deliberate and calculated form of helplessness in dealing with the homeless and mentally ill. What do our politicians and government administrators tell themselves when a fellow like Zack dies? That’s it better he die outside instead of in a facility that could carry any hint of being locked up?

There could have been another option. About 13 miles north of the hillside where Young died stands the brand new, never-opened, 525-bed Wapato Jail Facility. It was built in 2004 for $59 million after a voter-approved levy. Once completed, county officials said they couldn’t afford to operate it for various reasons – the recession, new tax initiatives limiting property taxes and a jump in unemployment.

The LA Times described Wapato as “one of the prettiest jails ever built. A long driveway circles past a modern-art sculpture on the front lawn. The main building appears like a manor. … The interior motif leans towards pastels. Vaulted ceilings and open-air corridors suggest the design principles of feng shui.”

There also were spacious 75-bed dorms with rows of new metal bunks, flat-screen televisions adorning the walls, dorm ceilings soaring 30 feet high, private showers and more than $600,000 worth of art.

That story ran over a decade ago. The number of homeless on Portland streets has now been declared an emergency for the past two years. An indication of how bad it is came during a public hearing in early September about a proposal to open still another homeless shelter in the Old Town section of Portland.

Among those opposed was the owner of a law firm that specializes in criminal defense of the mentally ill. Even defense attorneys are getting fed up with the heavy concentration of homeless shelters and services in downtown Portland.

Occasionally someone will suggest that at least a portion of Wapato be opened up. After all, the minimum-security facility was designed in part to have secure drug and alcohol treatment beds. Services could be moved out there. The isolation away from downtown’s drug dealers could help someone fighting addiction.

The most insurmountable obstacle seems to be philosophical. Using Wapato would be a violation of Portland values.

Even though it’s never been opened as a jail, Wapato carries the stigma of prison – as if incarceration can never be a good thing.

“That’s not who we are,” is the kind of statement that Portland’s elected and self-selected community leaders like to make, shutting down any debate.

The media go along, never asking, “What do you mean ‘we’ … who determines what Portland values are?”

Among the worst violators are politicians like Multnomah County Commission Chair Deborah Kafoury and various activists who call themselves advocates for the mentally ill, or advocates for the homeless, or advocates for the most vulnerable. So many advocates, so few solutions.

The reasons commonly cited for why Wapato can’t be used for a homeless facility – the property would have to be rezoned, and there would be costs to get it up and running – are the kinds of difficulties that Portland-area politicians don’t seem to have trouble overcoming when they are motivated to do so.

Kafoury was in such a hurry to unload Wapato last year that she offered to sell it for $9 million to a man who wanted to use it to grow indoor organic fruits and vegetables. The deal quickly fell through. Earlier this year, California real estate developers offered $10 million for it. That offer is still on the table, but as of now Wapato remains for sale.

The vacant facility has been used for film and TV shoots and as headquarters for a search-and-rescue operation. There was a warm-and-fuzzy moment several years ago when it was reported that coyotes were digging underneath the fence trying to break in to the jail.

That became an inspiration for a group of artists called ERNEST. They created a multi-media project that was presented at the art gallery, c:3initiative in the St. Johns neighborhood. It included a video of people wearing coyote masks running around inside the facility.

An accompanying book of essays, artworks, research, and primary documents focused on Wapato and “general issues of incarceration, participatory citizenship, and the role of art in social justice and storytelling.”

Social justice – two words the Portland-values crowd clings to. In their world, justice doesn’t require cops, prosecutors or jail cells — unless the crime involves race or sex.

As The New York Times reported recently on what the ACLU hopes for nationwide: “(T)he surest way to win voters’ hearts is not to vow to lock people up, but to offer policies to keep them put of jail.”

In Oregon, the political sheep are eagerly on board.

An example of Portland’s values on display was when Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently visited the city and asked the state of Oregon to stop providing sanctuary to illegal immigrants. Among the protesters objecting to him was Kafoury’s colleague, Commissioner Sharon Meieran.

“We will do everything we can to protect immigrants and refugees,” Meieran said.

So that was Zachary Young’s shortcoming. He was not an illegal immigrant. He was a brain-damaged American citizen. No refuge for him.

Portland has so many homeless they are becoming ubiquitous. That’s inhumane and dangerous. A city like New York also has homeless residents, but it is such a bigger city that they aren’t one of its defining features. Visitors to Portland invariably comment on the number of people in camps and sleeping in doorways.

Here’s my prediction: Kafoury will find a private buyer for Wapato who will develop a non-jail use for it (Oregon prohibits private prisons). Then, in a couple of years, the word Obamacrime will enter the lexicon when the social justice eggs our former president left us start to hatch and bring forth a rise in crime.

County officials will come to Portland-area voters and ask for a bond approval to build a new jail. They won’t call it a jail, though. Maybe they will name it the Values Center. It will have plenty of art.

– Pamela Fitzsimmons

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