Barbara Weber speaking at a rally prior to Tuesdays public hearing.
Barbara Weber speaking at a rally prior to Tuesday's public hearing. Alex Zielinski

As Portland seeks to "rebuild" downtown after the pandemic shuttered businesses, there's little mention of what that means for the many unhoused Portlanders who reside on downtown blocks. If the city simply hopes to return to the status quo, this means that unhoused Portlanders will likely continue to face routine harassment by the team of security guards paid through a city program to patrol downtown Portland's streets.

It's not a future many Portlanders want to see.

On Tuesday, several dozen members of the public spoke out on the issue during a city meeting on the pending renewal of Portland's contract with Downtown Clean & Safe, an organization that charges property owners located within its 213-block boundary to fund additional, or “enhanced,” services not already provided by the city—like graffiti removal, expanded trash removal, and augmented police and security patrols.

Unhoused Portlanders say Clean & Safe's security crews are known to threaten houseless campers from legally resting in public spaces, putting them in a constant state of unease. During a rally held by houseless advocates prior to the city meeting, Barbara Weber told the crowd about a time when she was living in a tent near NW Davis and 6th.

"I've been up for five straight days once... and not because of meth, it wasn't because too much coffee," said Weber, who also leads the garbage removal program Ground Score. "It was because Clean & Safe... they wouldn't leave us alone. Clean & Safe is programmed to think that we're the problem."

Clean & Safe is one of three "Enhanced Service Districts" (ESDs) within Portland city limits, all of which are independently managed with the city's permission, but without much city oversight. Clean & Safe, which is operated by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), is coming to the end of its 10-year contract with the City of Portland to oversee the downtown ESD. Portland City Council will consider renewing—and potentially tweaking—its contract in late September.

While the city doesn't directly fund Clean & Safe, it oversees its fee collection and distribution process. Because the city owns property within Clean & Safe's service district, it also contributes to the organization through the annual payment system. In 2020, the City of Portland paid more than $575,00 in fees to Clean & Safe for owning property within the district. Multnomah County buoyed Clean & Safe's budget with $365,630 in fees last year.

About 60 percent of Clean & Safe's current $5 million budget—which comes directly from the fees collected by business and residential property owners within the ESD—goes toward its security department, comprised of both armed and unarmed private security guards, four full-time Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers, and a staffer in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office.

Clean & Safe critics say this blurring of private-public policing raises alarm.

"It has long been recognized that a democratic civic life requires vibrant and accessible public space, what has come to be referred to as the commons," said Joanna Brenner, speaking at the Tuesday hearing. "Enhanced service districts are part of a larger, decades-long process of the privatization of the commons, as underfunded city governments have allowed commercial property owners to take control over city space."

Brenner continued: "[Clean & Safe] allows private policing of public space. This is another form of shrinking the commons, where public safety is no longer a public good but an undemocratic private process."

An August 2020 report by the Portland City Auditor’s office supports these concerns. The audit determined that officers and prosecutors assigned to monitor ESDs are able to circumvent city oversight, and instead adhere to rules and budgets established by business leaders who own property in those zones.

“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 audit reads.

The majority of community members who testified Tuesday spoke out in opposition of Clean & Safe's operations, instead encouraging the city to focus its resources on programs that help the unhoused community, not criminalize them.

"It is more cost-efficient to provide housing and services to the homeless than it is to push them around," said a speaker named Jana. "I know the city knows this."

Organizers with the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of unhoused Portlanders, have called on the city to terminate its contract with Clean & Safe outright. But, on the chance that doesn't convince sitting commissioners, WRAP has also put forward a list of recommended changes the city should make to the Clean & Safe contract before renewing its agreement with the city.

Those changes include removing private security guards funded by the ESD from public areas, removing Portland Business Alliance from Clean & Safe operations (claiming their partnership poses a conflict of interest), and creating a method for property owners to opt-out of the ESD payments—among other asks.

Karen Nelson, a business owner who testified Tuesday described herself as a "trickle-down ratepayer," since she rents from a property owner who must pay into the ESD's fund. Nelson said she wished she could opt-out of contributing to Clean & Safe.

"Not all businesses align with the goals of this ESD, certainly mine doesn't," said Nelson. "Since [ESDs] aren't public entities participation should be optional."

This was the second of several public hearings on Clean & Safe's contract, and took on a different tone than its predecessor. The first, held in late June, only heard testimony from property owners located within the Clean & Safe service area. Much of those who spoke in June were grateful for Clean & Safe’s services, and asked for more security to signal safety to shoppers and tourists in downtown Portland. No one expressed that opinion Tuesday afternoon.

"I think it is abundantly clear that Clean & Safe's enforcement policies are not determined by the needs and rights of the unhoused," said one speaker named Tyler, "instead they are determined by those who consider the unhoused to be a nuisance."

It'll be up to city commissioners to decide the future of Clean & Safe's contract. It's not clear where the entire council stands. In a Tuesday morning work session on policing, City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said she would will not support a new contract that funds police officers, as the contract currently allows.

"I don’t think because you have money you should have more access to justice," said Hardesty.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as the city's police commissioner, raised concerns about defunding the police officers assigned to Clean & Safe.

"I think we should be aware of the possibility that, if the four officer positions aren’t funded, what does that mean for who fills that void?" Wheeler questioned.

Portland Committee of Community-Engaged Policing (PCCEP), which makes recommendations regarding community policing to City Council, has recently suggested that void be filled by unarmed PPB staff, called Public Safety Support Specialists, or city staff working for Portland Street Response, the emergency response team for mental health and homelessness-related 911 calls that is currently in its pilot stage.

The other three commissioners have not publicly shared their stance on Clean & Safe.

Property owners residing in the Clean & Safe district have another opportunity to give feedback on the pending contract on August 17. City Council will vote on the contract's future during a September 23 council session.