Reports of drug dealing plague Old Town homeless experiment Bud Clark Commons
Portland police are concerned that the city’s highest profile public housing project is becoming unmanageable.
In early December, Portland Police Chief Mike Reese told the city’s Housing Commissioner Dan Saltzman that he was considering filing a chronic nuisance property complaint against Bud Clark Commons Apartments, the $47 million crown jewel in the city’s battle against homelessness.
Two and a half years into housing the city’s 130 most vulnerable homeless people, the apartment complex is putting too much strain on police, say Portland Police Bureau officials.
The commons opened in June 2011 as a grand housing experiment. The 130 apartments in a new, seven-story LEED-certified building were set aside for those among Portland’s homeless who scored highest on a vulnerability test that predicted who, if left out on the street, would be the most likely to be assaulted or die.
The commons complex is based on a national model called Housing First. From the start, residents have known they can keep their apartments for life even if they never pay rent, and that drug use and drinking in those apartments will be tolerated if kept behind closed doors.
But, according to several residents and visitors interviewed by the Portland Tribune, a handful of those once-homeless tenants are dealing heroin and methamphetamine from their apartments. Which might explain the growing number of police calls to the commons. Police say the types of calls they are seeing, with an emphasis on public disturbances, larceny and thefts, are consistent with drug dealing in the apartments.
Coincidentally, administrators at nonprofit Home Forward, which manages the building, say that police cooperation at the building, which might have helped them keep drug dealing under control, has been reduced in the past year.
All kinds of statistics are used to measure the experiment at Bud Clark Commons Apartments. Home Forward administrators point with pride to an 80 percent success rate, measured by the number of residents who are still housed.
There is no mistaking the difficulty of housing people who have been living on the street, often for many years, most with mental illness and addiction.
In 2012, management at Bud Clark Commons issued 123 “concern forms” and took 262 pre-eviction actions against tenants. Through June 2013, 24 tenants had been evicted or left because of lease violations, and 28 had died.
In addition, building staff held more than 1,700 meetings with residents, offering a variety of activities and help ranging from mental health counseling to assistance with applying for disability benefits.
“I feel very positive about the kinds of outcomes we’re achieving and some of the bridges we’re building,” says Rachael Duke, Home Forward’s supportive housing program director.
According to Police Bureau statistics, calls for police service to the apartments and the sidewalk in front have increased from 391 in the first 10 months of 2012 to 516 in the first 10 months of 2013. For the six months ending in June 2013, an ambulance was called to the building 44 times.
Duke says a number of the calls to police are the result of mental health crises among her tenants, most of whom suffer from mental illness. Duke says she is unaware of significant drug dealing in the commons’ apartments, and suspects residents exaggerate when talking about dealing in the building.
“If we did (have significant dealing) it would feel different and we wouldn’t have the kinds of successes we’re having programmatically,” she says.
Duke says talk of a chronic nuisance property complaint, which by law can only be made by the police chief or a precinct commander, doesn’t make sense to her. She feels she has a good relationship with police officers in Old Town.
“We don’t really feel like we meet the description of (a nuisance property) because of our work with police as well as our desire to continue working with police,” Duke says.
The combination of addiction and high vulnerability makes the commons a unique place to manage. Duke says she does not know how many of her tenants entered the building as drug or alcohol abusers. The number is high because addiction is one of the criteria on the vulnerability test that determines who gets apartments there. Residents interviewed by the Tribune say a majority among them is dealing with substance abuse.
Holding people accountable
Some cities have chosen to disperse chronically homeless addicts to smaller, scattered sites rather than designate one building for the most difficult to house people. Some experts voice concern about a negative aggregation effect that can take place when buildings house one type of tenant — in this case the most vulnerable and addicted.
But the Harm Reduction model of housing exemplified by the commons — whether in one building or in scattered sites — has gained increasing acceptance among housing officials nationwide. The idea is that making few demands on the most difficult to house increases the number who will stay and decreases public money spent on them. A number of studies have shown that keeping substance abusers in stable housing saves the community money that would otherwise be spent on taxpayer-funded items such as arrests, court time, jail time, emergency room visits and temporary shelters.
Given the levels of addiction, mental illness and long-term homelessness among the people selected for housing at the commons, few are expected to stabilize their lives to the extent that they move out and find market rate or affordable apartments with public subsidy less than at the commons. In two years, only one resident of the commons has earned money from employment. Duke estimates that three or four have moved out to public housing.
All that makes Duke’s job especially challenging. Housing First favors keeping people in their apartments as long as they don’t bother other tenants. There are no requirements that residents engage in addiction counseling or any other programs.
But those same guidelines that give residents of the commons a safe place to use drugs could encourage a few residents who were users on the street to become drug sellers once ensconced in apartments. Duke acknowledges that discovering who might be dealing from apartments at Bud Clark Commons would be difficult.
But there might be ways to overcome those problems. Duke says that when the commons opened in 2011 her staff kept a list of tenants they thought might be involved in criminal behavior. They would give that list to police officers, who would regularly pay casual visits to those tenants.
“It was awesome,” Duke says. “It added power to our ability to manage those behaviors. People got that we were looking at them and tracking them.”
In 2012, according to Duke, police told her they no longer had resources for those visits. In addition, Duke says, police have refused to give her a list of people arrested for selling drugs in the Old Town area. Duke says she would start an eviction process against any Bud Clark Commons tenants who made the list, and exclude others from becoming future residents.
Home Forward officials say that overall they have less partnership with police at Bud Clark Commons than they do at other public housing buildings or communities such as New Columbia, but they’d welcome increased cooperation.
Chief Reese declined to be interviewed for this story, but Central Precinct Cmdr. Robert Day says his street officers report seeing a lot of drug use around the Old Town apartment complex, and an increase in drug arrests in the area.
Day says it isn’t clear whether drug dealers are operating from apartments inside the commons or dealers are selling to residents of the commons. Residents there told the Tribune that a number of others living in the building bring in heroin to sell to other residents. Tenants could be victims as much as perpetrators, Day surmises. Either way, he says, it’s a problem.
“I think it’s become known by street-level drug dealers,” Day says. “You have a predatory environment there. You’ve got all these people who have addictive behaviors.”
Day supports the idea of housing the city’s most vulnerable at the commons, though he thinks some changes might be necessary. He says state landlord-tenant rules governing the building make it too hard to evict people.
“The more I look at this model, I believe in it,” Day says. “But I don’t know that it can continue because of all the protections granted to people. There needs to be some sort of accountability, something put into place that has people held accountable.”
Half wet, half dry
Seattle housing officials say that at similar Housing First buildings in that city, drug dealers have been chased out by strict limits on how many guests each tenant could have each day and how many at one time. Duke says the commons is taking similar measures. Residents have told the Tribune that dealers can work deals to use allowable visits by fellow tenants.
Day says the Police Bureau is not planning to immediately file a chronic nuisance complaint, but is holding out that possibility if concerns are not addressed. In fact, the ordinance is generally used as leverage to force change and only rarely is a formal complaint filed with the city attorney.
Raising another question about police calls to the apartments, Day wonders how many calls would be generated by the same people if they were living on the street. “If we bring it all here at least it’s all in one location,” he says.
Day says police are open to better cooperation with management at Bud Clark Commons Apartments. “I really believe that what is being provided here is absolutely necessary. I am open to doing it in a way that is less impactful on the community,” Duke says.
Among the most affected community members is Transition Projects Inc., which operates the homeless day center and shelter on the north side of the Bud Clark Commons facility. The 90-bed short-term shelter is dry — no drugs or alcohol allowed. Having one half of the building wet and half dry creates problems, according to Cliff Madison, board chairman of TPI and chief operating officer for Portland Patrol Inc., which has a contract to provide security around the commons. TPI’s main issue is apartment residents and their guests loitering around the building.
“It also impacts our clients because a lot of them are trying to clean up,” Madison says.
Madison points out that drug dealing has taken place for years in front of the Greyhound bus terminal across the street from the commons, so it can be hard to know how much of the outside drug activity is related to the apartments. He says that TPI’s board has discussed options for dealing with the problem, but would not reveal what actions are being considered. Reese is a member of the TPI board.
Changes at the commons could, however, be more drastic than simply re-establishing coordination with police. The chronic nuisance ordinance is generally used by police to get changes made in the way properties are managed, and police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says that could be the case with the commons.
“If you have an extraordinary amount of police department service going there, clearly something is not working,” Simpson says.
Housing Commissioner Saltzman says he was aware of complaints about the commons before Reese talked to him last month.
“The chief’s meeting, to me, indicated that things exacerbated from where they had been,” Saltzman says.
According to Saltzman, the city and other agencies involved with Bud Clark Commons might have to consider re-examining some of the Housing First policies governing the building. That could include taking a second look at the commons’ policy of reserving all the apartments in the building for the city’s most vulnerable.
Drugs put commons tenants in a bind
Judy Dietrich would change only one thing about life at Bud Clark Commons Apartments. She’d like to see the drug dealers kicked out.
“The less dealers we have, the better off we are,” says Dietrich, 49, one of the first tenants placed at the commons.
Before taking a test that rated her among the city’s most vulnerable and qualified her for one of the 130 apartments at the Old Town complex, Dietrich spent three years living on the street. A heroin addict, she says she is being treated with methadone.
Dietrich’s studio apartment at the commons is crammed full with her stuff. She feeds barbecue-flavored potato chips to her pet rat, Mother, and her pet mouse,
Neonasha, who live in cages near her bed.
Since moving into the commons, Dietrich has made use of the social services available on the building’s fourth floor. Social workers helped her apply for Social Security Disability benefits, which she now receives.
On the street, according to Dietrich, she didn’t have the wherewithal to apply for benefits. “I spent all my time making sure I would be warm at night,” she says. “The people on the fourth floor, I really do love them.”
Dietrich also is seeing a mental health counselor as a result of connections made through the commons, and she is having dental work performed. She says her husband is a patient at Oregon Health & Science University and social workers at the commons supplied her with a taxi voucher so she could visit him. The apartment at the commons is intended for Dietrich alone, but before his hospitalization, she says, her husband would stay with her a few nights at a time. When he is well, she says, staff have told her they will help the two of them move into public housing.
“If they could just get rid of some of the people doing wrong, selling drugs,” Dietrich says. “On every floor here there are at least one or two people who (will) sell you something.”
Good idea poorly executed
Jason Isbell spends a lot of time in Bud Clark Commons. Isbell says he knows about 40 percent of the building’s tenants through his years on the street. He can often be found visiting a friend in one apartment or another. He calls himself “high-functioning crazy” and admits to a life of using and dealing drugs. He is being treated with methadone.
According to Isbell, about eight in 10 residents at the commons are substance abusers. Heroin is the drug of choice for about two-thirds of the drug-abusing residents, he says. Hand-off drug deals in front of the building are common, he says, and users know which apartments to ring if they want to buy heroin or meth. It’s not uncommon, Isbell says, for people using the services at the day center to buy drugs in the apartments.
Isbell says he knows a man who has a Bud Clark Commons apartment but rarely is there — he stays at a friend’s apartment in the building and allows a dealer to use his apartment as a base of operations.
Isbell says there are six or seven heroin dealers and four or five meth dealers in the building that he knows personally. Another 20 tenants, he estimates, serve as middlemen or runners for dealers. Isbell says the setup at the commons provides a perfect situation for addicts who were unable to deal on the street.
“They’re just doing it because they’re able to do it,” he says. “Because they have a safe place to do their transactions. They’d get busted in a minute on the street.”
Isbell says the staff at the commons should be aware of the dealing. “Everybody knows everybody who lives there,” he says. “As long as you’re not disturbing the people around you, they don’t care.”
“It’s a great idea poorly executed,” Isbell says of the commons. He says as long as tenants know they can stay there rent-free for life, they won’t be motivated to make changes in their lives. For those with income — usually Social Security Disability — the commons takes about 30 percent for monthly rent.
“A lot of those people, they’re not on the street, so they have no further goals,” he says. “They’re happy. They need to stop allowing people to placate themselves by doing nothing. They need to ensure that people are using this place as an opportunity to improve their lives rather than do the same thing indoors. That is the waste of money.”
A safe place for some
A police officer who patrols the area around Bud Clark Commons says he knows of residents who have moved out of the building because of too much criminal activity. He adds that he gets called to the apartments once or twice a day.
But the officer, who asked that his name not be published, says he prefers to take a big-picture look, and from that perspective he calls the apartments a success. “This provides a place for homeless alcoholics and drug users to live,” he says. “The good news is they’re not doing it out there in front of the MAX stop.”
Another tenant of the commons, a woman in her late 20s with a history of heroin abuse who says she is bipolar, who also asked to remain anonymous, says the heroin scene in the building is “crazy,” but calls her apartment “a godsend.”
“I was living out of a plastic bag for 13 years,” she says, adding that she was raped multiple times while living on the street, but has been safe at the commons.
She wonders if the commons is a more dangerous place to be for heroin addicts because it gives them a safe place to shoot up, and might lead to overdoses. In fact, the tenant says she knows of residents who had never done heroin until moving into Bud Clark Commons, but became hooked on the drug through other residents.
For her, feeling safe trumps all other concerns. “We need more buildings like this,” she says.