A couple tents covered in blue tarps on the sidewalk. A police bike officer walks by.
Homeless campers on a sidewalk in Old Town Portland. Dirk Vanderhart

Downtown businesses weighed in on Clean & Safe, a contentious downtown cleaning and security service, during a listening session Tuesday.

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Clean & Safe serves the downtown district of the City of Portland’s Enhanced Service Districts (ESD). ESDs are zones of the city where business owners pay for additional, or “enhanced,” services not already provided by the City of Portland, like graffiti removal, expanded garbage clean-up, and augmented police and security patrols. There are three districts in total: Clean & Safe in downtown Portland, Lloyd in the Lloyd neighborhood, and Central Eastside in inner Southeast Portland.

Clean & Safe, the largest and oldest ESD, serves 213 blocks of downtown and is managed by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA).

Every 10 years, the city has the opportunity to terminate or renew an ESD’s license. Clean & Safe’s license expires September 30, 2021, so the PBA is hosting listening sessions for a variety of the district’s stakeholders—such as business owners, Clean & Safe ratepayers, and community members—to determine what changes may need to be made to the ESD’s services.

The listening session on June 29 was the first of four planned listening sessions and only featured comments from downtown businesses within the Clean & Safe service area. The public will not be able to comment on the service until a session in early August.

Of the 14 businesses or business employees that offered comments, the majority were grateful for Clean & Safe’s services, but asked for more detailed plans of what the service district would do to calm the fears of some downtown employees and potential tourists who perceive the area as unsafe.

Some business owners want to see expanded patrols by Clean & Safe staff, increased services on the weekends as shoppers return downtown following the pandemic, and additional focus on nearby parks—not just the sidewalks in front of their businesses.

Additionally, some businesses asked for more clarity and transparency about the management structure of the ESD, reflecting the findings of last year’s audit of the ESD program. In 2020, the Portland City Auditor found that all three ESDs lacked proper oversight from the City of Portland. The auditor expressed concern that it was the businesses who paid for ESD services, not the city, making rules that impact public spaces.

“Businesses and property owners seek the authorization for districts because of dissatisfaction with the level of services provided,” the city auditor wrote. “The problem arises when security, enforcement, and management of public spaces are decided by one paying sector of the community without the city’s oversight and public input.”

The PBA say they are currently in the process of developing a response to the city audit that aims to address some of these concerns, and create oversight and policy recommendations.

During the listening session, a few commenters said they have increasingly relied on Clean & Safe over the past couple of years, particularly as Portland’s housing crisis has caused an increase in the presence of unhoused Portlanders downtown.

“We rely on Clean & Safe more than ever with more incidents of people with addiction or mental health issues coming into our store and, of course, all of the garbage around downtown,” said Eric Murfitt of Mercantile Portland. “Keep it up and keep it renewed.”

While some business owners appreciate Clean & Safe’s role in removing unhoused people from outside of their businesses, advocates for unhoused Portlanders believe the service has perpetrated additional harm on the homeless population.

Sisters of the Road, an organization that provides meals and resources to unhoused Portlanders, is within the Clean & Safe downtown district. Lauren Almony, an organizer with Sisters of the Road, highlighted the organization’s concerns with Clean & Safe and the way the service interacts with homeless people. Clean & Safe funds four Portland Police Bureau officer positions that provide additional police services to the district. Homeless services advocates argue that those additional officers cause unhoused Portlanders who live downtown to be over-policed.

“We have a very large concern with the funding of services to ‘mitigate’ the houselessness and cleanliness issue without actually looking at the root causes of this issue, which is funding and resources,” Almony said. “Unless we address those, we think that putting money into these services is only going to continue the problem."

Sisters of the Road, in collaboration with other houseless services advocates, developed a list of changes they want to see in the ESDs. The demands include removing private security patrols from public spaces, removing the ESD’s ability to fund Portland Police Bureau officer positions, removing all public money from ESDs, placing ESD renewals on the ballot so the public has an opportunity to vote on the services that impact public spaces, and stopping the PBA from managing Clean & Safe. Sisters of the Road, as well as another commenter, believe the relationship between Clean & Safe (a registered nonprofit) and PBA (a registered chamber of commerce nonprofit) is inappropriate because it means that two private organizations are making decisions for a public space without oversight from the city.

A downtown employee named Jennifer, who said they were speaking as a citizen and not on behalf of their company, also raised issues with how Clean & Safe interacts with unhoused people.

“Our store staff really does rely on Clean & Safe, I can’t deny that,” Jennifer said. “I don’t think it’s because Clean & Safe does an exemplary job, but there really is no other option than our violent police force that we know are not always the kindest to people in mental crisis—especially lately.”

According to OPB, last week PPB officer Curtis Brown shot and killed Michael Ray Townsend who was experiencing a mental health crisis and called 911 in an attempt to get help.

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Several businesses not only asked for the continuation of reactive services—like garbage clean up and responding to the presence of homeless people—but also for clarity on what proactive efforts Clean & Safe and the city are doing to improve issues like mental health crises and homelessness.

“In addition to providing good responsiveness, what would be some good preventative measures the city is thinking about,” Dina Farrell of Portland Community College asked. “I think that would help employees feel more comfortable knowing we’re focusing on preventative [measures] as well as responsiveness.”

The PBA will host three more listening sessions throughout the summer: a session featuring comments from downtown residents on July 20, another for comments from the community at-large on August 3, and a session for Clean & Safe ratepayers on August 17. Anyone can register to watch all of the sessions, but members of the community can only give comments during their designated session. Registration information and a calendar can be found on the PBA’s website.