Jeff Merrick might have your phone number. He might even use it.
Since June, Merrick—a Lake Oswego attorney and Pearl District resident—has been engaged in a tug-of-war with city officials over a special segment of Portland homelessness data.
Using a city website known as One Point of Contact, thousands of Portlanders have complained about homeless camps in their neighborhoods in recent years. Many even offered up their contact information, just in case city officials wanted to follow up. And last year, after deciding that ordinary people didn’t have enough say in dealing with Portland’s homelessness crisis, Merrick decided to ask for that information.
The good news: Merrick prevailed. This is unquestionably public information, after all. In a January 8 order first reported by the Oregonian, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office told the city to cough up the records.
The bad news? Merrick now hopes to use the trove of data in a way that could be extremely unhelpful, to say the least. He wants to unite the NIMBYs.
“The voices that are out there on these issues... are not really a well-rounded group,” Merrick told me on Monday. “You get one neighborhood that is totally up in arms... then there’s an enforcement action for a while, the problem moves to Lents, and the people in Laurelhurst go back to their lives. There’s not a consistent neighbor group.”
He’d like to change that. The 59-year-old has visions of a grassroots group similar to Portland Tenants United, the rabble-rousing renter advocacy organization. His object: Make sure neighborhood interests are consistently involved in the region’s homelessness policy.
Merrick mentioned a few neighborhoods during our discussion. For instance, Laurelhurst, where residents last year (unsuccessfully) demanded Mayor Ted Wheeler slap stepped-up penalties on homeless people staying in Laurelhurst Park. Or Mount Scott-Arleta, which was recently papered in flyers that used Soviet iconography to oppose a new homeless shelter.
I told Merrick it sounded like he was dreaming up some sort of NIMBY supergroup. He said I was wrong.
“I think of it as just the opposite,” he said, explaining the coalition he envisions would be able to promote regional solutions to the homeless problem.
One such solution? “How about we do what they did in the 1920s and 1930s?” he said, referencing the Multnomah County Poor Farm, where the county once sent its destitute and disabled to work the fields. “Let’s give people some self-sufficiency instead of warehousing them.”
So. That’s on the table.
This whole thing might or might not happen. The seven-month struggle with the city has sapped some of Merrick’s enthusiasm for these ideas, he said, and a two-year self-imposed sabbatical from practicing law is almost up. Still, recent publicity behind his cause has helped. Since the Oregonian ran a story, Merrick’s gotten calls of interest about his plan, and has even set up several appointments.
“I’ll probably come up with an event in March or April to get people together,” he said.
Jeff Merrick might have your phone number. Whether you pick up is on you.