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 20 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 had 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 Zachary 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


High Hopes and Sad Realities

A Sexual Sadist Makes His Plans


  • Don’t feel bad about not speaking to the man in the chair in the middle of the woods. If I recollect the Buhler trail connects between Termilliger and Barbur. When my daughter went to OHSU she liked to jog on Terwilliger, a beautiful street with good sidewalks and enough traffic to feel safe if you need help. When she ran on the trails, she went with friends. Off trail you can’t be seen. Barbur’s a problem. Lots of bus traffic, etc. They’re talking about putting light rail in. Unless Portland gets a handle on the homeless, creeps, etc. I don’t see how extending light rail is going to help Terwilliger stay nice.

  • Yes, the Buhler Cutoff Trail runs between Barbur and Terwilliger boulevards. You’re right, the trail head on Barbur has stops for eight bus lines. You raise a good question about the effect of light-rail on the urban woods.

    Currently, there are signs posted throughout the Terwilliger Wild Lands, “Connecting Portland’s Urban Forest Project.” You have to read the fine print on accompanying flyers to know what’s really going on: Too many invasive plants are killing trees and hurting wildlife.

    “Invasive plants and trees … can be controlled if we address this issue comprehensively.” The city of Portland let this problem metastasize for so long, they are now being forced to use spraying.

    There’s an analogy here, but I don’t think a city that loves being a sanctuary for the homeless and the lawless can see it.

  • I equate liberals’ hand wringing over what to do about mental illness and homelessness with conservatives’ hand wringing about mass shootings. There absolutely are solutions to explore, but they are drastic, big ideas that will be hard so both groups sit back, shrug, and often blame each other in times of acute crisis.

    I assume you are aware of the KGW report airing tonight. The results are pretty amazing: over half of Portlanders have considered moving to another neighborhood or out of the city due to the homeless problem while over half think we should not confiscate homeless tents and garbage. The poll data is rife with similar contradictions.

    I think the only true conclusion to pull out of the numbers is that the report shouldn’t be called “Tent City, USA” but rather “NIMBY Town, USA”.

  • Matt:

    When it comes to mass shootings, everybody wrings their hands. I don’t think we need to show our respect for the Second Amendment by letting civilians stockpile military-grade weapons. And bump stocks? Outlaw them, but be prepared for that law to be broken — especially with 3-D printers now.

    One of the most sensible gun laws ever passed in the U.S. was the briefly enacted “use a gun, go to jail” law three decades ago in California. Suddenly, there were fewer robbers pulling guns. But the law was overturned by the California State Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, one of the most liberal justices in California history. (Today use-a-gun-go-to-jail laws would be denounced as racist.)

    This guy in Las Vegas killed himself, so a jail sentence wouldn’t scare him. What solutions do you want to explore? How do you change American culture? How about declaring a moratorium on political party designations, and see if that cuts down on the blame and bickering.

    In the KGW Report on Tent City USA, for example, they asked people questions about their race, age and political party affiliation. That makes the results more valuable and marketable for other uses, I suppose. I don’t see how it helps lead to any solutions.

    Interesting that 82 percent said they would support “building a permanent shelter that provides beds and services… .” Well, we have one sitting empty.

  • PDXowner wrote:

    I’m part of the half that would like to move out of Portland. The past summer my daughter woke me up in the middle of the night, “Dad there’s somebody on the patio.” A man spread out on one of the loungers. I opened a window and told he was on private prop. and needed to leave. He had the attitude, hey man, I’m only trying to sleep. When I said I’d call the cops, he left.

    Our house is worth a ridiculous amount of money, at least fro now. My business can’t be moved tho. When my wife’s friend got lice this summer, she couldn’t figure how. The Dr. asked her if she rode the bus or used headphones at the library. I guess that’s how it is now.

    The media’s gone gaga over the new chief. What neighborhood does she live in. Not mine I’m betting. Do her kids go to public or private school.

    I don’t totally disagree with the other guy about all the hand wringing. There’s no leadership from any side. The media is helpless too. They keep reporting the same situation, no answers.

  • At least the guy in your backyard took your threat to call police seriously. Some of the homeless (and their “advocates”) know full well how short-staffed the police are. There’s a limit to how quickly officers can respond.

    In the KGW report referenced by Matt, 30 percent of the respondents said they were “somewhat dissatisfied” with the Portland Police Bureau — the same level of dissatisfaction with Mayor Ted Wheeler. He deserves much more blame: He’s the police commissioner. The new chief reports to him.

    The new chief said in earlier news stories that she liked the Pearl District. I don’t know if that’s where she lives. I did ask someone about her four-star status. Portland’s previous police chiefs (even Dr. Ed Moose) all wore two stars on their uniforms. Portland likes symbolism, and we’ve now got a four-star chief. I hope it translates into something meaningful.

    I’m sorry you feel stuck. From the KGW report, it sounds like you’ve got a lot of company. A friend of mine sold her home and is currently packing boxes preparing to move out of Portland. She is politically aware, attends meetings, knows a lot of the players. She said she was tired of the corruption and incompetence.

  • A few years ago two young rangers I worked with were attacked by a man with a knife. It was in Forest Park and I believe the man was mentally ill. One of the two had a long hospitalization.

    I’m now working my second security job in the East Delta Park Area. I had a tall lean madman accuse me of (among other things) conspiring w/Nixon. He charged me several times and then attempted to strike me with his truck.

    Very nearly simultaneously, a poor madwoman who was trying to solicit rides with truckers to California again trespassed the property. The same officer who took the report on the prior lunatic was still around and escorted her off of commercial area.

    In my 18 or so months working security in the Hayden Meadows/East Delta Park area I’ve come to the unscientific belief that the mentals perhaps out number the dope fiends.

    It is just awful – the degradation and squalor in which these people live and the generalized danger they represent to the citizenry of the area.

    Recall that fellow last week who set a dog upon a Black man after abusing him as a “nigger.” No Klan affiliation there. I’d manhandled him several times in the preceding weeks. Mad from drink, drugs, chemical imbalance, or all three -he had no business running loose.

    The officer who handled the two mentally ill folks yesterday indicated that he knew his role in the catch and release program. And, to my surprise he acknowledged the pernicious effects of the local bad government

  • Larry:

    Too bad John Horvick, the political director for DHM Research that did the KGW poll, can’t spend some time working security in the Hayden Meadows/East Delta Park area.

    “There’s a lot of opportunity for people to be engaged in their own lives to help address homelessness that don’t require action from city leaders…,” Horvick said. “(T)here are things we could be doing and the data suggests most people aren’t doing something.”

    Exactly what does he want people to do? Adopt a homeless person? Mr. Horvick probably has an office that sits empty every night. Why can’t somebody move in when he leaves for the day?

    The most disturbing thing about your report, aside from the obvious dangers, is that the mentally ill might outnumber the dope fiends. President John F. Kennedy would be stunned at how his New Frontier in mental health treatment turned out. (See “High Hopes and Sad Realities”)

    There is nothing humane about letting the mentally ill live on the streets. Mental hospitals and treatment facilities can be safe and nurturing with social contact for some, extra security for others. The staffs can be well-trained and compassionate. The facilities don’t have to be perfect to get good results.

    Take care of yourself, Larry. I hope we won’t be reading about you in the news.

  • I see both situations as a trade-off of rights. Currently we as a society value the rights of the homeless to be outside and untreated for mental health/addiction (for most of the people outside this is a chicken and egg question). The theft, assaults, disturbances, and the litter are already illegal, but the presence of the camps on our streets invites this likelihood. This devalues the rights of other citizens via their crime, litter, and general disorder. These things are viewed by the likes of the ACLU as the cost of freedom from the government forcing people into facilities through civil commitment or less directly by civil or criminal sanctions that put pressure on people to decide it is easier to not live outside.

    The argument is similar for gun rights. We value the rights of the individual to own guns. This creates a market for guns and ammunition to be owned, purchased, and most importantly produced. Once produced in the numbers they currently are, the tools are out there and can be acquired by those with the desire to acquire them. This devalues the rights of other citizens to be free from someone shooting and killing a bunch of us while we gather in public places. This doesn’t even touch the other more deadly costs like the almost bihourly shootings in places like Chicago that garner virtually no media coverage. Murder is already illegal, but the presence of the weapons invites their use. This is viewed by the likes of the NRA as the cost of freedom from government intrusion in general.

    Again, I see this primarily as a question over which rights do we value? Americans in general are fiercely protective of individual rights from the government. These come at the expense of our collective rights to be free from the bad actions of individuals. We as a people get to choose what we value more; I just want the debate to be framed better than it currently is.

  • You raise a good point about the trade-off of rights. Whose rights do we value more? In the case of guns, there is a legitimate self-defense use for guns. If you tell someone who wants a gun for self-protection that he doesn’t have that right, how do you also take away the freedom of criminals to blatantly ignore gun laws and arm themselves? If the Second Amendment disappeared, guns would still exist. Who gets to have them? Only cops and criminals?

    As we can see with both criminals and the homeless, they are willing to seize whatever rights they can get away with. Who is going to stop them? Especially if there is no downside. Under criminal justice reforms being pushed by lawmakers and the media, incarceration doesn’t work.

  • Sorry, I kind of hijacked your blog post above. A final note on the homeless/mentally ill. Where Charlie Hales and the architect of the Safe Sleep program, former mayoral chief of staff Josh Alpert, got it wrong is they thought homeless people are otherwise functioning people who just had a bad break. “There but for the grace of God go I…” They thought they would follow the rules. They thought the campers would pack up in the morning, clean their place up, and then go about their business only returning at night. They didn’t realize that the reasons problem homeless people cannot function in society in a traditional manner are the same reasons they cannot be low-impact campers.

    Thanks for the forum.

  • It is worth remarking that both businesses that have employed me in the Delta Park area have diverse personnel. All working class or working poor.

    Three of my current co-workers are Hindu – from Fiji, Trinidad, and Puna. A Filipino/Samoan heads IT. I report to a widowed black man who helps sustain his grand kids. This just touches the tip of the human variety.

    The customers are even more diverse.

    All, insofar as I can tell, get along pretty well and just want to live their lives without harassment, violence, and etc.

    The homeless population makes this a constant challenge.

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