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‘Deadliest’ block in Portland now quiet after Community Safety Division addresses drug dealing, prostitution

The city’s response to the problems on Milton Street showcases potential solutions to entrenched public-safety problems in Portland


Six months after The Oregonian/OregonLive dubbed the 8200 block of Northeast Milton Street the deadliest in Portland, the Madison Suites motel is now a ghost town.

Mark Graves

By Savannah Eadens

PORTLAND, Ore. — Sam Adams stood alone on Northeast Milton Street one day last July, trying to understand what he’d gotten himself into.

“It was immediately apparent how dangerous and disordered the situation was,” the former mayor recalled recently. “Milton Street was clearly a drug bazaar.”

And not just drugs.

One man sitting on the curb caught Adams’ eye and pointed to a woman. “Do you like this?” he asked the current mayor’s right-hand man.

Six months later, the area is almost unrecognizable.

The 8200 block of Northeast Milton, which The Oregonian/OregonLive had dubbed the deadliest in Portland shortly before Adams’ visit, is now quiet.

Drug dealers and prostitutes are no longer easy to spot. The camp of tents outside the First Orthodox Presbyterian Church is gone. The flock of broken-down cars and RVs have been towed away.

The biggest change came at the Madison Suites Motel – the centerpiece of the block, and for months the launching pad for much of its violence.

Four people had died in shootings on just this one short block in the year before Adams stood on the street, surveying the scene. None have died since then.

The city’s response to the problems on Milton Street showcases potential solutions to entrenched public-safety problems in Portland. But in a municipality of about 145 square miles that’s grappling with record gun violence, rampant drug addiction and widespread homelessness, it remains to be seen just how possible it is to apply the approach to more neighborhoods.

For their part, residents near the Madison Suites are encouraged – and more than a little surprised. They had formed a community group and spent month after month pleading with city officials for help. Month after month, nothing much happened.

Then Adams, prompted by The Oregonian/OregonLive’s reporting, went out to see the scene for himself, and action soon followed.

The catalyst for that action: In late July, Mayor Ted Wheeler declared a gun-violence emergency as the city hurtled toward what would become its second straight year of record-breaking homicides. This freed up $2.4 million in funding from the city budget, and officials decided the 8200 block of Northeast Milton would serve as one of the testing grounds for an initiative aimed at stanching violence in concentrated trouble spots.


Side-by-side comparison views of the 8200 block of Northeast Milton, compiled with photos captured in June and then in December, show the stark contrast in the area.

Mark Graves

The Milton Street pilot project allowed Adams, Wheeler’s top advisor, and leaders in the city’s newly formed Community Safety Division to focus resources and attention, bringing together Portland city bureaus in an unprecedented way. The approach fast-tracked an integrated response, bypassing what has proved time and again to be a cumbersome and not-very-effective bureaucracy that has frustrated residents and city officials alike.

And it appears to have worked, at least for now.

In the past six months, the area’s most notorious drug dealers along the stretch of Milton Street near the intersection of Northeast 82nd Avenue were arrested during police stings. So were sex traffickers who often could be found on the block, including at Madison Suites. Stolen, partially dismantled cars have been towed away. An entrenched tent city was cleared for the fifth time two months ago, and hasn’t returned. The city posted signs stating that no overnight parking was allowed – and enforced the prohibition.

Now the sidewalks are clean and void of needles, trash and tinfoil.

“The switch has certainly been flipped over there,” said Portland police officer Michael Stevens, who works on the Neighborhood Response Team and led stolen-car missions concentrated around the Madison Suites Motel.

During recent patrols, Stevens has noticed a dramatic decrease in criminal activity in the area. Along with the four men shot to death there between August 2021 and March 2022, at least half a dozen others during that period were wounded by guns.

“We’re always holding our breath, you know,” Stevens said. “Because these things can come back.”

The perfect storm

For months in early 2022, a group of residents in the Madison South neighborhood that encompasses the 8200 block of Milton Street struggled to navigate the “maze of city bureaucracies” in an attempt to tackle the problem area, said Alan Luebke, a filmmaker who’s rented a home on Milton Street since 2020. Residents feared for their safety as the violence intensified outside the Madison Suites, he said.

They kept meeting with different city agencies, and kept hitting dead-ends.

“Everyone we talked to listened to us, but then they’d say they didn’t have the power to take action,” Luebke said. “It was confusing to be told each time to go talk to someone else.”

After The Oregonian/OregonLive reported on the residents’ plight, Sam Adams showed up at the Madison Suites and left his contact information for Mike Patel, who’s owned the motel since 2008.

For months, Patel had been unresponsive to outreach by the concerned neighbors, who sent him letters through a neighborhood association, listing their concerns and offering to work together to solve problems.

Adams returned a week later and walked the property with Patel. It was the start of a relationship between the former mayor and the business owner, who acknowledged he was both scared and frustrated by the criminal activity at his motel. He said the violence and crime at the property had been exacerbated by the pandemic and a lack of help from police.

“Seeing things through his eyes helped,” Adams said. “(Patel) kept saying he’d call the police and they’d come, create a momentary pause in the criminal activity and then things would go back to normal. He was understandably angry, frightened and clearly in despair.”

Adams recognized the severity of the problem – and how it was centered in the motel, a collection of dilapidated buildings constructed as temporary housing during World War II. He spread the word at City Hall.

Madison Suites, it became clear, was the “perfect storm,” said Stephanie Howard, the city’s director of community safety.

And now, with the gun-violence emergency declared, the city could begin its experiment.

Wheeler’s emergency ordinance allowed him to sidestep the soon-to-be-replaced commission form of government, which for decades has broken up the city’s bureaus into, in Adams’ description, “bureaucratic silos,” with many reporting to city commissioners rather than the mayor. Wheeler put Adams and the Community Safety Division in charge of bringing the sprawling city agencies – from the transportation bureau to the police bureau – together to address this one problem on Milton Street. (Another pilot program in the initiative was undertaken in the entertainment district downtown, where the city cut off access to some streets, increased patrols, added lights to dark parking lots and sent street outreach workers to meet with homeless people.)

The Community Safety Division is led by former fire bureau chief Mike Myers, who’s been assigned the task of unifying Portland’s fragmented public-safety systems.

Reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive shed light on the problem and helped city officials connect with residents who’d already spent time thinking about the Milton Street block’s problems, Myers said.

“Having neighbors that were already engaged and connecting with each other allowed us to hit the ground running,” added Howard, the community safety director.

The obvious place to start was Madison Suites, where one of the block’s homicide victims in the past year was found dead between two large metal storage containers.

First up, the Bureau of Development Services sent out an inspector, who found more than 20 code violations at the property.

Patel set to work to address the violations, and the results quickly were visible.

The windows of the one-story buildings that make up the motel are no longer boarded up. Inside the 80-year-old buildings, most of the 30 efficiency-style units sit clean and empty. Just five are occupied with renters right now; another five are in the midst of being renovated.

Patel is in the process of obtaining permits for more repairs.

“The bottom line on this property is that it has shown substantial improvement including visual appearance/atmosphere, maintenance and functionality of units, attracting clientele and removal of problematic occupants,” Ken Ray, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Development Services, said in an email.

A “Site Security Assessment” by the Community Safety Division also recommended Patel fix broken security cameras and fencing.

“Nooks and crannies” of the property allowed for discreet drug use that was difficult to monitor and mitigate, Howard said.

Patel didn’t invite or condone the criminal activities at the motel, “but he was just overwhelmed with everything that was occurring and didn’t know where to start,” Howard said. “I feel like we’re giving him a foundation back.”

These investments haven’t been cheap. Patel and his family are applying for a business loan through the city bureau Prosper Portland to make repairs and get the property up to code. It’s cost them about $65,000 to $70,000 so far, Patel said.

But it’s worth it, he believes.

“We are happy and we are peaceful. We are getting good sleep,” Patel said of the results of the cleanup effort. “Mr. Sam Adams is helping us.”

Patel said he’s relieved that he no longer has to try to monitor the property around the clock, but he says he still needs help from police to control drug dealing in the neighborhood. And he’s afraid the homeless camp will reappear, believing it damaged his business over the past few years.

One of the reasons Patel has been eager to tackle the problems the inspector identified: He wants to unload the property on the city. And it just might happen.

The city is in talks with the Joint Office for Homeless Services, a partnership between Multnomah County and the city of Portland, about the possibility of converting the motel into a transitional housing site.

The cleanup of Madison Suites was important, but it was only one part of the solution for the area. Law enforcement also played a key role.

In addition to several stolen car missions by East Precinct officers, the Portland Police Bureau’s Human Trafficking Unit undertook three missions in the “high vice” area on Northeast 82nd Avenue between June and December, including Milton Street. This included more than 60 hours of surveillance by detectives, and the effort led to 13 arrests and the seizure of more than a dozen illegal guns and a substantial amount of fentanyl and cocaine, police said.

None of the arrests took place at Madison Suites, but several suspects were associated with the property, said Sgt. Kristi Butcher who leads the Human Trafficking Unit. Three of the suspects are accused of committing crimes on Madison Suites property, Butcher said. During the investigations, the bureau identified eight victims of human trafficking, four of whom were minors.

What’s next?

In the aftermath of the pilot program for Northeast 82nd Avenue and Milton Street, everyone involved in the project agreed: this is the way it should’ve been done all along.

“It illustrates what we can do when we all work together,” said Jenni Pullen, the manager of the Community Safety Division’s Safe Blocks program, which consulted on the Madison Suites project.

In the initiative’s weekly “incident command” meetings with representatives from multiple city agencies, the problems felt less overwhelming. Doable.

Part of the sense of hope came from the realization that there was no one-and-done solution. Myers and others working on the project, for example, heard from the neighborhood’s residents that things got better in the area after arrests were made and the homeless camp swept – only for the problems to come back a few weeks later.

That is, it wasn’t just the motel. And it wasn’t just the drug dealers. And it wasn’t just the homeless camp. And it wasn’t just the accumulation of stolen cars. It was how they all fed each other in destructive, symbiotic ways.

To be sure, the larger issues exacerbating the problems on Milton Street – such as the mental-health crisis and the proliferation of drugs and guns – are beyond the ability of this pilot project to address. But the initiative showed that the city zeroing in on one small area can make positive, and maybe even lasting, changes.

It also showed just how unwieldy – and often “dysfunctional” – Portland’s government often is, Howard acknowledged.

The city’s commission form of government, which Portlanders in November voted to reform, “didn’t serve anyone very well,” Howard said. “One of the big lessons learned here is: all of this would not have been possible or functional if it weren’t for the issuance of an emergency declaration that allowed us to fast-track what we needed to do.”

The key thing, she added, proved to be remarkably simple and straightforward: “Having us all at the table together meeting weekly, looking at problem areas.”

Now the city says it will take lessons learned from the apparent success on Milton Street to other small areas in Portland experiencing extreme gun violence.The initiative activated by Wheeler’s emergency declaration was designed as an experiment aimed at curbing violence during 2022′s warmer months. It doled out $1.5 million to “community investment,” such as the Milton Street pilot project. About $150,000 went to salaries of some staff involved and another $63,000 to a third-party consulting group that will evaluate the city’s efforts.

With the Milton Street pilot project viewed as a success, Adams insisted the city is committed to this new approach for as long as it takes.

“We will continue to fund it and refine it until gun crimes return to their previous levels before the big spike (during the worst of the pandemic),” he said.

The city’s Office of Violence Prevention has earmarked $10 million to spend on similar efforts over the next two years. The city hopes another $2 million will trickle in from a federal community-safety grant announced by the U.S. government in December.

Some funding has already been directed to support the next intervention projects, which will target sections of the Hazelwood and Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhoods. These areas have seen a rise in shootings, traffic fatalities and property crime.

The city is in the early stages of planning its approach in those neighborhoods. Unlike on Milton Street, they will have to start from scratch, reaching community members and meeting with local organizations and businesses to figure out where to focus their limited time and resources.

This might seem daunting, hopscotching from trouble spot to trouble spot, but the city now knows what it can accomplish. Just ask the Portlanders who live near the 8200 block of Northeast Milton.

“It’s been a long, not-sexy process,” Luebke said in a recent neighborhood meeting. “But it seems like a pretty good outcome based on where it was six, even four, months ago, which was such a disastrous, dangerous situation.”

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