Doug Brown

"Safe zones" aren't coming to posh and leafy Laurelhurst anytime soon.

Last month, residents in the neighborhood forwarded a plea to Mayor Ted Wheeler, asking him to step up penalties for people who camp, use drugs, or go to the bathroom outdoors within 1,000 feet of a school, park, or another place frequented by children. People caught flouting the safe zone rules would be subject to a $100 fine or up to 30 days in jail, the Oregonian reported.

"We're trying to protect children, but trust me, this is going to help all of us,” a woman named TJ Browning told KGW. “This is a dangerous situation that's gotten out of control.”

The plan was rooted in the increasing number of people sleeping around Laurelhurst Park, residents said. But it also addressed activities that are already illegal—which is something Wheeler noted in a previously unreported letter telling the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association he wasn't interested.

"I am not ready to support your suggested ordinance at this time," Wheeler wrote in the July 26 letter, which didn't miss a chance to take a swipe at former Mayor Charlie Hales. "The City has tools at its disposal we can use to address criminal activity. Past administrations have used them sparingly and inconsistently. I am taking a more active approach."

The letter marks at least the second time Wheeler's shot down the pleas of a Portland neighborhood association regarding homelessness. In June, the Montavilla Neighborhood Association passed a resolution asking the city to cease all camp sweeps within its bounds. Wheeler declined.

The mayor's letter to Laurelhurst neighbors sought to show that he's being active on dealing with street homelessness (a recent count suggested Portland's homeless population is on the rise, but that the number of unsheltered homeless Portlanders fell by 12 percent in the last two years). Wheeler pointed to a new policy of speedily towing RVs that present safety hazards, and increased resources for camp clean-ups citywide.

And he also mentioned something that's not been reported: In mid-June, Wheeler issued orders to the Portland Police Bureau to consistently enforce the city's law against "erecting structures" in parks, sidewalks, and public rights-of-way.

"I want Portland Police Officers to know that I support and encourage their efforts to enforce laws that maintain our public right of ways, so that all residents and visitors have safe access to public spaces," Wheeler wrote in the memo [PDF], addressed to Police Chief Mike Marshman and the PPB as a whole. "To that end, the City of Portland will enforce city codes that prevent the erecting of structures on roadways, parking strips and sidewalk."

It's not clear what practical effect the dictum had. Well before Wheeler wrote it, cops were clearing out camps on city sidewalks under his watch.

It's possible the document was meant more as solid proof of the mayor's support. When Hales introduced his controversial "safe sleep" policy—which, in theory, allowed people to sleep in small numbers on city sidewalks and elsewhere—police officers frequently groused that they'd been stripped of authority to deal with the issue.

"We seek to strike the appropriate and humane service balance between our livability goals and ensuring
public safety," the mayor told cops.