Portland has a serious poop problem. The Oregon city recently acknowledged that it removed 3,300 gallons of human waste from the streets in the past year alone.
However, the police say they’re powerless to stop homeless people from relieving themselves in public, even if it happens right in front of them.
Sgt. Kevin Allen, a public information officer with the Portland Police Bureau, told Pluralist: “It is a topic officers that work downtown hear about somewhat regularly.”
The complication, he said in an email exchange, is that an Oregon court last year barred authorities from using a state law in cases of public urination and defecation.
“I’m not aware of a legislative fix, so at this point we are unable to address the behavior from a law enforcement standpoint,” Allen said.
With the police paralyzed, Portland has resorted to expensive cleanup efforts after the fact.
According to a recent analysis by the city, as many as 450 reports of human waste are filed with Portland’s homeless complaint system every week. Each time a crew responds, it costs taxpayers $316.
Fearing urban blight or an outbreak of infectious disease, Democratic Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Portland City Council agreed to spend some $900,000 on portable toilets and bathrooms for the homeless in the coming fiscal year, The Oregonian reported in June.
The larger issue, of course, is homelessness itself. As Portland has grown into a hipster mecca, the homeless population has become increasingly desperate and increasingly visible.
In 2015, Portland declared a state of emergency in hopes of securing additional federal and state funding to respond to its homeless crisis. Yet over the past two years, Multnomah County, where Portland is located, has recorded a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of “chronically homeless” people.
In a profile of the problem last month, Fox News found that conditions have “gotten so bad that it’s hardening even the most liberal of bleeding hearts.”
“I put blinders on a lot,” said a local bagel shop employee identified only as Shannon. “Like tunnel vision. I choose not to acknowledge it.”
A national homelessness crisis
Portlanders are not alone. While federal statistics show homelessness trending downward nationwide, a number of American cities have struggled with vagrancy ― and the attendant toll of human waste.
Every city is different, and diagnoses of the problem vary by ideology. Liberal wonks tend to blame rising costs of living, slow wage growth and lack of affordable housing. Conservatives point to over-generous welfare programs, cultural decay and liberals’ reluctance to crackdown on people they view as victims.
Earlier this month, business owners in one Seattle neighborhood told local media that a single homeless woman staying in a nearby illegal encampment has been terrorizing their block with her feces for months.
“It’s a health hazard,” grocer Mike Sandberg said to KOMO News. “It’s just something I can’t believe is allowed to happen. It seems like there is no law.”
Seattle police said they’re empowered to punish people for public defecation, but only if they catch the person in the act. They said no one on the block had been arrested or cited.
A spokesperson for Seattle’s Democratic Mayor Jenny Durkan said she was aware of the complaints and the city was trying to move the people living in the encampment to safer spaces. But any illegal dumping on private property is the responsibility of the owner, not the city, the mayor’s office said.
Why Portland police can’t stop people from pooping in the street
With the possible exception of San Francisco, no city embodies the conservative caricature of progressive administration more than Portland, where officials tolerate semi-regular clashes between antifa protestors and right-wing activists.
When it comes to public defecation, the Oregon Court of Appeals decided in State v. Corcilius that a 2017 state law against littering does not cover public urination. Alex Hamalian, a criminal defense attorney who works in the Portland area, told Pluralist that the Multnomah County Prosecutor’s Office may be wary of applying the law to cases of public defecation for fear of costly legal challenges based on the court’s ruling.
Similar calculations may also prevent enforcement of two Portland ordinances that directly prohibit urination and defecation in public, Hamalian said. He doubted, though, that the ruling actually applies to the municipal code, which “specifically addresses urination and defecation.”
Anyway, Hamalian said, the Oregon Legislative Assembly could easily pass a law to empower police to bust public defecators. But in his estimation, lawmakers are too busy fighting over “pie in the sky legislation,” so they “kind of let it hang.”
Others have blamed Portland’s liberal politics. Last July, Mayor Wheeler announced an investigation of the Portland Police Bureau based on activists’ claims that officers were systematically harassing homeless people. The probe by the police watchdog agency ultimately proved inconclusive.
The Portland Police Association responded at the time by slamming Wheeler for allegedly scapegoating hardworking officers for his own “failed policies” on homelessness while leaving the department underfunded.
As a result, “Our City has become a cesspool,” they charged.
Pluralist reached out to the Multnomah County Prosecutor’s Office, the Portland Mayor’s Office and the Portland Police Association for comment, but did not hear back by time of publication.
Hamalian, a registered Democrat, said that politics aside, the police union was right about the state of the city.
“The amount of public urination and defecation has risen to just a sickening and unhealthy level,” he said. “You see it. It’s just everyday.”
“I find it odd for somebody of my politics to be saying this,” Hamalian added. “There needs to be something done, either through the criminal justice system or through the social services program. I have an infant and it’s horrifying to me that I could let my infant walk down the street in Portland and they might step in pee or feces.”