A little more than a year ago, downtown Bend residents and business owners flooded City Council chambers with complaints about people presumed to be homeless urinating and having sex in public, smearing feces on windows, harassing children, intimidating passersby and selling drugs on the street.
This summer, downtown Bend had more police officers, more security cameras, private security guards and high-pressure sidewalk cleaning. And while recorded police calls in the area may be up, people who live, work and visit downtown say they felt safer this summer than they have in previous years.
“Every year was kind of worse than the last,” said Bend City Councilor Bill Moseley, who often walks to work at his downtown software company. “Last year probably was the peak year. This year takes us back three or four years.”
Complaints about panhandling and other behaviors associated with homelessness downtown have been common for at least the past decade. In 2016, a downtown livability committee led by Bend Police Chief Jim Porter prepared a report on ways to discourage panhandling, though nothing initially came from those recommendations.
Moseley, who’s lived in Bend for 20 years, said he noticed drug deals taking place in Drake Park, behind the breezeway between Minnesota Avenue and Riverfront Plaza. The city in 2010 created a civil exclusion zone, which allows people who’ve committed certain crimes to be banned for up to three months.
The exclusion zone initially applied to public parks, Brooks Alley and the parking lots adjacent to Mirror Pond, but it was expanded in 2015 to include most of downtown. The exclusion zone doesn’t prevent people from working downtown or driving through it.
Strife came to a head last summer, when two major events — the total solar eclipse and an annual gathering of the Rainbow Family, a loose-knit group of between 10,000 and 30,000 people who gather at a different national forest each year — brought thousands more visitors to the area. Downtown workers, customers and business owners crowded City Council meetings and discussions with the Downtown Bend Business Association last August. Downtowners complained about their interactions with large groups of people asking for drugs or money, sleeping on sidewalks, disrupting traffic and yelling at or threatening employees and customers.
“Last year, we actually had people sleeping perpendicular to the buildings so their legs stuck out in the sidewalk,” Moseley said. “Now, there generally aren’t people lying all over. The downtown also feels a lot cleaner.”
The addition of private security, along with an increased police presence downtown, seems to have helped, Moseley said. He described a recent incident where he saw a security guard talking to a group of kids who were panhandling: one of the young people told the security guard he was being annoying, and the guard responded by saying it was his job to be annoying.
“It did send a message that no, you’re not going to take over downtown,” Moseley said.
“Anecdotally from talking to businesses downtown and visitors, there is a perception that downtown is safer this year than last year,” Hemson said.
One of the biggest changes to perceived safety is an increased police presence, Hemson said. Bend’s police department is closer to being fully staffed than it’s been in years, and this summer it reassigned its four school resource officers to patrol downtown.
That means officers are in the downtown area up to 16 hours each day, Hemson said.
“Just the visibility alone I think is valuable,” he said.
Higher staffing levels mean officers can be more proactive in policing, rather than just responding to calls, Bend Police Capt. Paul Kansky said. Because of how the department tracks police interactions, officer-initiated interactions with residents are recorded as calls, so there appear to be more police calls downtown now than last year.
“Actual calls for service downtown might be higher,” Kansky said. “It’s a positive thing because I think that’s what leads to less issues downtown.”
Bend Police did not provide data The Bulletin requested on the number of police encounters and citations downtown.
Having school resource officers work downtown meant Bend Police could help mitigate problems right away, instead of waiting for calls or being called away to more serious incidents elsewhere in town.
“It’s way more rare this year that we have to call people off assignments downtown because we have more staffing this year,” Kansky said.
Through most of the summer, Bend’s downtown officers had space in one of the city-owned office buildings across from City Hall to file paperwork. In early August, a downtown police substation opened in the parking garage. The substation won’t always be staffed, but it will provide space for officers to work on paperwork and use as a home base downtown.
The most common calls downtown have to do with yelling, panhandling, disturbances and people skateboarding or behaving suspiciously in the parking garage, Kansky said. Later at night, calls tend to shift to alcohol-related incidents, such as bar fights.
Police this summer aren’t seeing as much potentially disruptive but legal behavior such as panhandling, camping, loitering or yelling. Officers are able to explain concerns and help build relationships between clashing downtown users.
“Our job isn’t only to enforce laws,” Kansky said. “One of our jobs is to help solve problems in our community.”
While the school resource officers will head back to Bend schools this week, Bend’s problem-oriented policing unit will keep paying attention to downtown, Kansky said. The team of a sergeant and two officers handles police operations including drug and bike theft stings, and it plans to do more foot patrols in the downtown area when the other officers return to their school posts.
In September 2017, the Bend City Council passed a new law requiring people camping, sitting or busking on sidewalks in downtown Bend to leave a 6-foot-wide accessible path.
The law was intended to clarify a city code that already while not going as far as the “sit-lie” ordinances passed by other cities, including Portland. Those laws prohibit sitting or lying on sidewalks, are generally described by homeless advocates as attacks on transient people who don’t have anywhere else to rest and have been overturned by courts.
Bend’s law allows police officers to cite people for blocking sidewalks, but only if they ask them to move first. Since the law took effect last year, neither Bend Police nor the city know of any incidents where people have been cited.
The City Council earlier this year signed off on spending $134,000 to redesign the south Mirror Pond parking lot as part of an effort to provide more parking space for large pickup trucks and discourage people from using the dumpster enclosure inappropriately. Design is about 60 percent of the way done, and construction will likely start next year, Hemson said.
The city already removed cinder-block enclosures around the dumpsters in the parking lot, cutting down on reported uses of that garbage enclosure as an outdoor restroom, spot for drug deals and dumping ground for items — including a sailboat — that weren’t brought to Knott Landfill.
“We’ve brought the walls down, and it’s not really someplace you can hide out any more,” Hemson said.
The parking lot redesign will likely have enclosed dumpsters again, Hemson said, but it’s more likely to be a see-through fence.
The city is also starting to look at changes to the downtown parking garage, where people have reported feeling unsafe because of enclosed stairwells and teenagers skateboarding. Bend Police did not share any reports of assault or other serious crimes in the garage.
Moseley said he came close to hitting a skateboarder while driving in the parking garage once, and the garage has trouble with teenagers riding on the hoods of cars. He said he also has had to call police about people smoking marijuana in the parking garage. While recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon, state law prohibits using the drug in public.
City Councilor Barb Campbell, who owns Wabi Sabi downtown, said she understands the perception that the downtown parking garage is unsafe, even if the types of crimes reported in the garage have more to do with property damage than anything else.
“There are not crimes against people happening in our parking garage,” she said. “But I’m a woman. I own a business downtown, which means I’m often here early in the morning or late at night. I understand why people are reluctant to use these spaces.”
The Downtown Bend Business Association plans to launch its anti-panhandling program, Bend Cares, later this fall. The association is now finishing the Bend Cares mobile-friendly website, which will allow donors to give directly to organizations that aid the homeless instead of giving money directly to panhandlers.
The business association received $10,000 from the City of Bend to use for the website and marketing. It’s also using special taxes paid by downtown property owners for private security and more street-cleaning.
Deschutes County is slowly moving toward opening a 24/7 stabilization center for people experiencing mental health crises or substance abuse. The county allocated about $2 million this year for a center with limited hours, but the goal is to have round-the-clock mental health services and medical services for people who are drunk or on drugs.
The center is one way to address local aspects of a nationwide homeless problem, Campbell said. Many homeless people, particularly those who engage in disruptive behavior, are dealing with addiction or mental health issues but have few places to receive the care they need, she said. Emergency rooms are one option, but they’re expensive and if police officers take people experiencing mental health breaks to emergency rooms, they have to stay for hours with that person.
“We do live in a really safe city,” Campbell said. “Our citizens are safe in their homes, safe in the streets. Most crimes are symptoms of larger societal problems.”
“Where you have shops, you have shoplifting. Where you have bars, you have bar fights. We’re targeting our limited resources on those actual crimes.”