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Our Opinion: Don't give drug dealers a rent-free haven

Everyone seems to agree that the Bud Clark Commons Apartments are a good idea.

The project’s managers think it’s working.

The residents think it’s working.

Even the Portland Police Bureau thinks it’s working.

Apparently some drug dealers think it’s working as well — and therein lays the problem.

The commons, which opened nearly three years ago, is a 130-dwelling, LEED-certified structure built to house the most vulnerable of Portland’s homeless population. Applicants who were least likely to survive if left on the streets were granted a place to live in the commons.

They could live there as long as they wanted, without paying rent or answering questions about their drug or alcohol use — as long as the latter was kept behind closed doors. This policy is based on a national model for aiding the homeless called Housing First, which is based on the premise that a homeless person’s primary need is to obtain stable housing. Once that issue has been resolved, the theory goes, it becomes easier to address other difficulties a person may have.

To that end, the organization that manages the commons, Home Forward, has deemed the complex to be a success, based upon the fact that 80 percent of the original residents are still housed there.

What they do not trumpet is that, in the past two years, only one resident of the commons has earned money from employment, and only three or four residents have moved to public housing.

As a frequent visitor to the commons put it: As long as people know they can stay there rent-free for life, they have no motivation to make any changes in their behavior.

This lack of positive change can unfortunately include drug use.

A spike in calls for police service at the apartments and sidewalk in front of the commons illustrates the extent of the problem. In the first 10 months of 2012, police received 391 calls for service. In the first 10 months of 2013, that number grew to 516. Do the math and you’ll see the number would increase to 681 calls for service in 2014. While that direct proportion is hardly likely, a decrease in the number of calls for service is also unlikely.

No one wants to see the commons go away. Central Precinct Commander for the Portland Police Bureau, Robert Day, says, “The more I look at this model, I believe in it. But I don’t know that it can continue because of all the protections granted to people. ... There needs to be some level of accountability — something put into place that has people held accountable.”

We agree. The commons is doing admirable work to help people who have issues with long-term homelessness, mental illness or addiction. However, without some enforcement to combat drug distribution and use, the commons becomes nothing more than subsidized housing for illegal activities.

Home Forward and the Portland Police Bureau should both be recognized for their commitment to the project, but both sides need to make changes for the commons to succeed. Home Forward must find a way to evict tenants who are using the facility as a base of operations for illegal activities. The Police Bureau needs to find a way to help ensure that residents and neighbors of the commons feel safe and free from the dark cloud of drug activity.

Allowing the growth of illegal drug use and distribution is a disservice for residents trying to change their lives for the better through the use of the commons and the associated social services that are accessible on the fourth floor of the building. Such unlawful activities also tarnish the reputation of an otherwise commendable operation.

The commons has the opportunity to be a model program and a key component in curbing homelessness in Portland. However, we cannot continue to turn a blind eye to illegal drug distribution, or the housing project will become nothing more than a publicly subsidized haven for drug dealers.