The challenges confronting the West Bayside neighborhood in Portland are difficult to miss.

Sandwiched between a bustling downtown and a former industrial zone, it’s the only place where downtrodden people can go to access a cluster of social services within a few blocks, whether it’s a meal, emergency shelter, welfare or help with employment. Many of the people using these services are struggling with mental illness, addiction or both, and the neighborhood bears the scars of a lack of treatment options.

Men and women, young and old, openly drink beer and do drugs, day and night. People urinate in doorways and throw empty beer cans on the sidewalks and in the alleyways. That reality is underscored by “No Trespassing” signs on front stoops and, in some cases, razor wire atop back-alley fences.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a pair of used rubber gloves lay on the ground near a pile of litter not far from Preble Street, a nonprofit that operates a day shelter and soup kitchen. Around the corner was a napkin that appeared to be covered in blood. Groups of young men hung out on street corners, while others shouted profanities as they stumbled down the sidewalk. One man walked by a reporter, photographer and a resident being interviewed and offered the group a beer.

“This is an issue that has been manifesting itself for the better part of 25 years,” said Steve Hirshon, president of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, which at times has felt neglected by city leaders.

Steve Hirshon, president of the neighborhood association in West Bayside, above, says he appreciates the city's efforts to address social problems there but he's not sure they will work.

Steve Hirshon, president of the neighborhood association in West Bayside, above, says he appreciates the city’s efforts to address social problems there but he’s not sure they will work. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A CITY ‘RESPONSIBILITY’ TO DO MORE

The city is doing something different to address the problem this summer, when demand for social services tends to spike.

In July, City Manager Jon Jennings launched a multidepartmental initiative – dubbed “Operation Bayside” – to clean up and help restore order in the neighborhood, which also houses two homeless shelters run by the city. Police are beefing up patrols into October, city planners and Public Works are working to improve lighting and sidewalks, and Social Services is conducting additional outreach to get more people off the streets.

Jennings said the city’s focus on Bayside is not a one-time push.

“It is going to be a concentrated effort year after year,” he said. “We feel as though, as the city, we have a responsibility to do a lot more than we’ve done, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Hirshon said the effort is producing results, but he’s skeptical the gains can be maintained without a year-round focus.

“It’s a quieter summer, no doubt. The trouble is, they can’t be here all the time,” Hirshon said, referring to the police. “We certainly appreciate the effort the city is putting in, but you’re trying to change a culture that has grown up in 25 years, in 10 weeks. I’m not that optimistic that it can be changed.”

Hirshon said neighborhood residents don’t typically worry about people who are staying temporarily in the city’s homeless shelters, or who are availing themselves of temporary emergency assistance and employment-related services. Instead, he said, it’s “the regulars” and the people who are content to hang out on street corners all day drinking alcohol and causing a ruckus.

To tamp down that behavior, police are beefing up their presence and having more interactions with people on the street. They are increasing patrols, in marked cruisers as well as on foot and bicycles. Plainclothes officers are also conducting more liquor and drug stings.

“We want people to know we’re there,” said Police Chief Michael Sauschuck. “For us, we know an increased response and increased presence lead to deterrence.”

Staff members at the city-run homeless shelter on Oxford Street are conducting more outreach to the unsheltered homeless, those who choose to sleep on the street rather than in the emergency shelter.

Staffers are also using eight people enrolled in the city’s workfare program, which requires able-bodied people to work in exchange for welfare, to pick up litter on a daily basis, not only around the shelter, but throughout the neighborhood.

“We have put a lot of manpower and time and effort into taking back our block and neighborhood,” said Rob Parritt, director of the Oxford Street Shelter. “I do think we’ve made incredible strides in the last month, while acknowledging that there is still work to do.”

Jennings said the neighborhood is now a priority area for street sweepers.

The corner of Oxford, Portland and Adler streets in West Bayside, as seen from inside the Community Policing Center. To tame unruly behavior, police are beefing up their presence and having more interactions with people on the street. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The corner of Oxford, Portland and Adler streets in West Bayside, as seen from inside the Community Policing Center. To tame unruly behavior, police are beefing up their presence and having more interactions with people on the street. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

PHYSICAL SPACES, BETTER BEHAVIOR

Meanwhile, the shelter staff has been placing a greater emphasis on improving the area around the homeless shelter by trimming back brush and removing weeds. But the key to Operation Bayside, Jennings said, is improving sidewalks and lighting throughout the neighborhood so residents feel safer at night.

Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said planners have been working with Public Works, Social Services and police to selectively upgrade traditional streetlights to LED lights, which are brighter and more energy-efficient. The city is also planning to improve sidewalks and add pedestrian-level lighting and street furniture, such as benches and bike racks, along portions of Elm Street, Cumberland Avenue and Marginal Way.

Levine said the improvements are in line with a planning philosophy known as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, which seeks to influence human behavior by improving and maintaining physical spaces.

“In the short term, the best thing we can to do to make a difference in Bayside is upgrade the lighting so people can see better and feel safer,” Levine said.

The roughly $1.2 million in streetscape and lighting upgrades is being funded through the city’s Capital Improvement Projects budget, as well as Community Development Block Grants, which are intended for distressed and low-income neighborhoods and services.

The focus on Bayside began around the same time the city closed on the sale of a nearly 3.5-acre parcel on Somerset Street to the Florida-based Federated Cos., which is planning to build to 440 market-rate apartments and an 850-vehicle parking garage in West Bayside. Additionally, developers are in the process of converting the former Schlotterbeck & Foss Building on Preble Street into market-rate housing.

Jennings stressed that Operation Bayside is not being driven by those new developments, but rather by the long-term concerns of current residents.

“It’s really the longtime neighbors who have been down there that prompted this,” he said. “You sit in this chair long enough and you hear the passionate pleas of neighbors who are dealing with social issues on a daily basis.”