IN FEBRUARY, Police Chief Mike Reese made headlines when he introduced Prosper Portland.
It was a chimeric proposal, drawing together organizations and bureaucracies from across the city with an eye toward stemming homelessness, which he said had reached a "tipping point." Still, with an emphasis on better sidewalk enforcement, cleaning up homeless campsites, and moving slumberers from downtown alcoves, the presentation had an undeniable law-enforcement bent.
And this is its greatest difficulty.
Prosper Portland—touted in a flashy PowerPoint, complete with a red, white, and blue logo—found enthusiastic backing from the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC), a collection of high-ranking justice, social services, and law enforcement officials in Multnomah County. The reception was much chillier in city hall.
At least one city commissioner took umbrage with not being informed of Reese's proposal before its unveiling. Mayor Charlie Hales' office confirmed Chief of Staff Gail Shibley was given a general sense of the program, but wasn't briefed on the "bells and whistles" until after Reese's presentation.
At some point, Hales' office decided the police chief wasn't the best person to float a plan to combat homelessness.
"This is an interesting framework, but if it's coming up as a police-department-driven program, that's probably the cart driving the horse," said Dana Haynes, a spokesman for Hales. "We think it starts with the housing commissioner. The mayor has said you've got to do services first."
Hales' office, meanwhile, was busy pulling together its own plan for cleaning up illegal campsites, effective Tuesday, April 1. It closely mirrors some of Reese's notions, though Haynes says that effort was conceived separately from the chief's.
It's a muddled situation, and symptomatic of an often-uncoordinated response to one of Portland's highest-profile issues since Hales took office.
Prosper Portland "basically came out of nowhere," said Commissioner Nick Fish, who used to oversee the housing bureau. "I think the police got over their skis."
But there's some confusion among officials over whether Prosper Portland is still a go. Sergeant Pete Simpson, a police spokesman, recently told the Mercury: "As a plan, it died on the vine. Last I heard was: There is no Prosper Portland. It was never anything more than a concept."
Simpson has since walked back that statement, saying Prosper Portland is a LPSCC initiative, yet acknowledging it was the police bureau that stirred up the idea in the first place.
And it's more confusing than that. Prosper Portland, it turns out, didn't begin solely with Reese. It's partly the brainchild of a local software firm, Thetus Corporation.
Located on two roomy floors in an Old Town office building, Thetus is the kind of tech firm with beer on tap and diagrams scrawled in dry-erase marker on every free window. The company works largely as a federal defense contractor, helping intelligence services map out problems and tie together loosely connected concepts.
But three or four months ago, the police bureau approached Thetus CEO Danielle Forsyth about tackling homelessness.
After some discussion, Forsyth said, her company felt it could use its software to help Portland piece together wide-ranging data and differing perspectives on the problem—to allow officials and the public to see homelessness in ways they'd perhaps never pondered. It would all be available on a publicly accessible website. And Thetus would call it Prosper Portland.
"Anything that's a risk is something we can model and analyze," Forsyth said in an interview at Thetus headquarters March 12. "It turns out all the things we're talking about around Prosper Portland are risks. They're risks to the health of the population at large, the health of our businesses, to people's perception of livability, their willingness to come downtown."
And Thetus is willing to do all this for free. If the effort in Portland is successful, Forsyth believes, the company can market the service to other cities.
"Did Mike overstep his bounds in sort of saying, 'This is Prosper Portland'?" Forsyth said of Reese. "Probably. But since then I've made it clear Prosper is a thing we came up with."
Weeks before Reese's February 4 presentation to LPSCC, Thetus hired an analyst to take on the effort full time, Forsyth says. But Prosper Portland, as Forsyth explained in the March interview, is partly based on extensive police bureau cooperation. The police bureau has been called off that effort for now.
Forsyth didn't respond to multiple requests for comment on the current state of the program, other than to say: "We're an analysis software company working to bring rigorous analysis to a broad range of programs."
Brendan Finn, chief of staff for Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman, confirms the office has been in touch with Thetus about information sharing, but so far little has come of it.
At the same time, Hales' office revealed it was taking steps to better coordinate the clean up of homeless campsites.
In the last week of March, the city signed a contract with private security outfit Pacific Patrol Services to post notices and dismantle—with 24 hours to seven days warning—sites on city land. The cost of the three-month contract won't exceed $115,000, officials said.
And city staffers have been holding talks between a wide range of bureaus—along with the Oregon Department of Transportation, Oregon Department of State Lands, and homeless advocacy groups, among others.
The idea, still in the early stages, is to develop an understanding among different agencies about how a campsite should be cleaned up—and what happens to the belongings that are whisked away.
"It's being proactive as opposed to retroactive," said Wendy Gibson, sustainable operations and maintenance manager in the Portland Office of Management and Finance. "When it comes to campsite cleanup, I don't think there's been an organized approach."
This approach, officials say, will give the city a clearer sense of how many camp sweeps it carries out, and the types of items it's picking up. The city's also planning to create a central repository for confiscated goods, which it hopes will help people find their belongings.
"That's the kind of coordination we haven't done really well in the past," says Haynes. "It's not going to be crystal clear and perfect, but we're really going to try."
The move is the mayor's latest foray into the issue of Portland's urban camping. Last year, Hales publicly battled protesters who'd been camping in front of city hall—drawing criticism from city commissioners for ignoring housing policy while he did so. And Hales has ushered in the focused dismantling of encampments in downtown and the central eastside.
But the new developments revealed by the mayor's office also echo moves Reese touted in Prosper Portland. Reese specifically called for city-financed "clean-up contractors" and more formal agreements for how to deal with problem sites.
It seems clear other elements of the police chief's Prosper Portland presentation are also going forward. Simpson says the bureau is undertaking police-specific efforts—including stepped-up foot patrols.
And LPSCC is still on board, according to Executive Director Abbey Stamp.
"I'm moving forward," she said on April 1, "with the tangibles around public safety."