The City of Portland shut down the Occupy Portland encampment in Chapman and Lownsdale Squares across the street from the City Hall this past weekend. It was part of the nationwide takedown of Occupy demonstrations. In an interview with PBS, Mayor Sam Adams explained his decision:
Police said the sites have been plagued by a series of problems, including multiple assaults and two fatal drug overdoses. And on Wednesday, a man was arrested on suspicion of throwing a Molotov cocktail the night before, doing minor damage at the city’s World Trade Center. […]
Well, you know, when the details of the drug overdoses, the details surrounding the individual that ignited the Molotov cocktail, when I have homeless and homeless youth advocates telling me that this is a very unsafe situation, you know, I listen to that.
I felt that it was disingenuous that the Mayor is citing overdoses and safety concern for youth as reasons for shutting down Occupy Portland. Occupy does not cause drug overdoses: they happen all the time across the city. If anything, the presence of the camp can save lives because people experiencing overdose are far more likely to survive when they are surrounded by many other people.
Similarly, Occupy does not endanger street youth: Occupy merely attracted youth who have already been endangered by poverty, homelessness, and lack of services. Taking away the resources the youth found for themselves is inherently disempowering and does not make them any safer. It is as if the City wanted overdose deaths and youth endangerment to be scattered across the city so that it would not have to recognize the magnitude of its failure, even if that means homeless youth and adults are put in greater danger.
I was particularly offended that the Mayor claims to have listened to “homeless and homeless youth advocates” when he decided to destroy a community many homeless youth and adults have chosen to stay. I thought he was making it up, because I believed that street youth advocates would support a harm reduction approach to advocating for the youth taking charge of their own survival, rather than forcibly removing them from resources they find for themselves.
I was wrong. Janus Youth, Portland-area’s largest provider of services to youth including Yellow Brick Road street outreach program, actually did advise the City about how Occupy Portland endangered youth–several days before Mayor announced his decision to crack down on the movement. A letter from Janus executive director Dennis Morrow, which was very unwisely posted on the Mayor’s website, says:
When Yellow Brick Road teams went through Occupy Portland during the early afternoon on Monday October 17th, they were greeted by large numbers of homeless youth who had voluntarily exited Homeless Youth Continuum (HYC) services to take part in the event. […] While we are very supportive of young people having both meaningful voice and purpose, our years of experience with vulnerable street-affected youth tell us that this requires a great deal of structure and expertise or it is a recipe for disaster. […] We have also met numerous youth who were voluntarily opting out of homeless youth services or refusing to access services as new clients because they felt they were getting their needs met adequately at Occupy Portland sites.
In talking with Yellow Brick Road staff, it is their sense that the political leanings of the original march and occupation have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of homeless youth and possibly runaway minors who have descended upon the area and, in some instances, brought the violent nature of street-based subcultures and internal hierarchies to the protest site. There are young people with significant developmental delays, mental illness and drug/alcohol abuse issues mingling with potentially predatory adults (and young children) in a largely unchecked environment. More recently we have seen several cases of staph infection from young campers in the area. Recent days have seen the implementation of “safe injection” and “sexual assault response” tents which, despite our unwavering support for risk reduction, speaks to the level of unexpected behavior in the area.
It appears to me that the main concern for Janus was the fact that many youth have abandoned its programs, making their failure as a social service provider apparent. Youth who decided to abandon Janus services did so because Janus was failing to provide competent and respectful services that were meaningfully better in the eyes of youth than what a group of disorganized volunteers provided at Occupy. The encampment was not taking away the youth from Janus; Janus was losing them. And the agency wanted them back, even if that meant a destruction of the youth’s chosen community.
I used to love Janus. I still love and trust many people who work at Janus. But over the past several years, I have noticed its distinct departure from harm reduction principles as the agency received funding from and embraced anti- (domestic minor sex) trafficking efforts. They are frequently seen appearing and working alongside law enforcement officers at various places (including at the national runaway and homeless youth conference in Portland this week), compromising youth’s trust in the agency as well as its ability to meet the youth where they are at.
Janus’ support for forcibly removing Occupy Portland and for evicting homeless youth from a place they made home is yet another sign that Janus takes supporting autonomy and dignity of youth less seriously than it once did. Of course, I know that many front-line workers at Janus do not agree with their bosses’ paternalistic, pro-police stances, and I am glad that there are many true advocates for youth within the agency. That said, while I have no doubt that the City would have shut down Occupy Portland regardless of Janus’ opinions, I feel that Janus betrayed street youth by participating in the City’s brutal attack on them.
Time to occupy Janus Youth?
707 NE Couch Street
Portland, OR 97232