Clean & Safe: the Secret City Within the City

The Secret City Within the City

In the summer of 2021, as the city council considered renewing the Clean & Safe contract, Portland DSA and the rest of the End Clean & Safe coalition published the following content as a series of emails meant to educate the public on the deeply flawed system of enhanced service districts. Despite the vociferous objections of numerous community members and the opposition of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, the rest of the city council voted to renew the contract for another five years. But the fight is not over 一 Portland’s other two enhanced service districts will soon be up for contract renewal, and the city council can vote to terminate or renegotiate the Clean & Safe contract at any time. Join our mailing list so we can keep you in the loop on future efforts to end the cruel and dangerous sweeps of our houseless population carried out in service of wealthy business interests without accountability to the people of Portland!

Table of Contents

  1. The Secret City Within the City
  2. The Haunting of Downtown Portland
  3. The Case of the Missing Oversight
  4. The Curious Case of the Bait Bike
  5. The Map of the Secret City Within the City
  6. A Journey Into the Belly of the Beast

Chapter 1: The Secret City Within the City

Between the clanging streetcars and sizzling griddles of food carts, a shadowy syndicate stalks downtown Portland’s streets.

While they’re out there, no one is safe. Houseless residents endure harassment and displacement. Homeowners, city agencies, and businesses watch, bewildered, as it siphons their resources for its own private ends. Day by day, the group lays claim to more public space, amassing an armed and unaccountable police force to keep us out of places that only yesterday belonged to everyone.

What is this monstrosity taking over our city?

Like any seasoned con artist, it goes by many names. Business Improvement District. Enhanced Service District. Polite society refers to it by its legal title: Clean & Safe.

Beneath its polished exterior, Clean & Safe is a dirty and dangerous operation. Since 1994, Clean & Safe has contracted with the City of Portland to privatize services like trash collection and security. Each year, Clean & Safe rakes in more than $5 million in mandatory fees from every business and property owner in its 213-block district to fund these “enhanced services.” However, there is little to no oversight or transparency in how those funds are spent.

In its tax filings (2018), Clean & Safe reported that 80% of its $5 million budget was managed by one independent contractor一the Portland Business Alliance. Of its total budget, the group spent:

  • 40% on patrolling public space
  • 16% on cleaning services
  • 13% on holiday lights

This September, Portland City Council votes on a 10-year renewal of its contract with Clean & Safe. Time is running out…and only we can stop them.

Join us as we pry off a manhole cover and descend into this secret city within the city. Over the next few weeks, we’ll release new chapters of this mystery and shed light on the dangerous path this shadowy syndicate is leading us down.

Who really runs Downtown Clean & Safe? What do they spend $5 million on each year? Will City Council stand with Portland residents or the Portland Business Alliance? Do twinkle lights and armed, uncertified security officers make a city clean or safe?

Chapter 2: The Haunting of Downtown Portland

Content warning: This chapter references police violence, gun violence, and death.

For a Portland August, it’s a little too hot. The sun downtown is a little too bright, so you linger on a shady sidewalk. Through the haze of the heat, a figure approaches. Could it be a Portland Police officer? No, that’s not the right uniform. Anyway, you’re not doing anything wrong, just trying to catch a moment’s rest. As the figure draws closer, you can make out a badge and a gun. The armed guard demands you move off the sidewalk. Your heart races as you watch the hand stretch menacingly toward the holster. If this isn’t the police, who could it be?

Last month, we lamented a loss of life in Delta Park. A man named Freddy Nelson, Jr., fell at the hand of a private armed security guard — not licensed to carry a weapon, but commissioned by a wealthy developer to police a BottleDrop.

Not long after, Old Town property owners copped to signing contracts with a hodgepodge of private security firms, turning the Entertainment District into a Wild West town. As late night revelers swarm, armed vigilantes prowl our streets with assault rifles. “We’re kind of running an underground government,” a hotel owner boasted, “to keep things safe.”

It’s almost more than you can believe. Almost.

Peer through the doors of any shopping mall or grocery store and you find them there, too: private security guards endowed with the power to turn lives upside down. We’ve taken consolation in the notion that their authority meets an abrupt end at the property line.

But what happens when property owners no longer observe the line between their private holdings and the public way? What if they set their goons loose into our streets?

By now you’ve heard about Downtown Clean & Safe, the Enhanced Services District (ESD) controlling 213 blocks of downtown Portland. Each year, Clean & Safe extracts more than $5 million in special fees from the homes and businesses within its borders, whether they like it or not. An eye-popping 80% of Clean & Safe’s multi-million dollar budget is managed by the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), a lobbying group that represents some of the city’s largest businesses 一 and, in turn, the interests of Portland’s wealthiest crooks.

In 2012, the PBA inked a deal with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) to fund, and have a hand in choosing, four of the six officers assigned to patrol the Clean & Safe district. But the racket doesn’t end there. PBA is also in league with Portland Patrol Inc (PPI), a private security firm that deploys its minions across the city, including the transit mall, Smart Park garages, and even the Apple Store.

You read that right — the Apple Store. For PPI, there’s no clear boundary between its public and private clientele. In a 2020 meeting with the City Auditor’s office, PPI’s owner, John Hren, boasted about offering “umbrella services,” which empower his employees to cross property lines however they see fit.

But the PPI umbrella stretches even wider yet. Hren told the Auditor that, in a private security scene that he called “incestuous,” his officers will lend a hand when other firms call in a favor. (Adding to the incest, Hren himself is a retired PPB commander.)

What does all this mean? When a Clean & Safe officer responds to a call, we don’t know who’s going to show up. It might be a PPI guard assigned to a Smart Park garage, or one of the six officers on loan from PPB, or a lackey from another private firm. Without access to PPI records, it’s hard to say. Hren told the City Auditor that, as a private contractor, he “doesn’t have to provide data or any information.”

As PBA and PPI blur the lines between private and public space and obscure crucial reporting data, we lose control over our own city. Meanwhile, the goons who haunt our streets answer only to the whims of a shady syndicate of wealthy business owners. You might begin to wonder if that whole 213-block zone of public sidewalks, streets, and parks hasn’t been carved right out of the city and given over to private hands. You wouldn’t be far from the truth.

While Clean & Safe operates, there really is an “underground government” at work — a secret city within the city.

Who exactly are Clean & Safe guards accountable to? Without access to their incident reports, how do we monitor their activities? Do Portland officials have any power to rein them in? Who’s calling the shots, and whose voices are being ignored?

Chapter 3: The Case of the Missing Oversight

The Central Library is buzzing with activity, but you don’t have time for distractions. In less than one month, Portland City Council will vote on extending its contract with Clean & Safe, the shadowy entity sicking armed thugs on the streets of downtown.

You look back down at the pages of the city auditor’s report, fanned out in front of you. This is, admittedly, the first audit you’ve ever read. But after that encounter with the armed security guard, you’re rattled. You can still see the officer’s gun glinting in the hot summer sun, the slight smile on his face as he orders you to keep moving. All you did was ask who he worked for.

After the incident, you nosed around on the streets to see if anyone had more information. One woman told you he was private security — “Clean & Safe,” she said.

“They don’t tell you where they’re from, you have to ask for their agency. At the beginning of COVID, people were getting kicked out from under bridges, even as people had nowhere to go with the shelters closed. It’s almost like they wait for folks to fall asleep to move them.”

Hearing her story, you felt the anger growing hot in your chest. What kind of city would allow its residents to be treated with so much malice?

But she was helpful. She was the one who hinted you should visit the library, where you found the blistering city auditor’s report. As you pore over its pages, you can hardly believe how the City of Portland neglects its oversight responsibility. The City has never received or reviewed annual reports or audits from Clean & Safe, and Mayor Wheeler has never received or reviewed incident reports from the private security contractor.

You read that right: no one tasked with monitoring Clean & Safe is doing their job.

Reading the audit, you start to notice a deafening silence: where are the voices of the houseless community? You notice that neither Portland Business Alliance nor Clean & Safe have houseless representation on their boards. If that weren’t bad enough, opportunities for input from the community are basically nonexistent, and those that exist are inaccessible. Only one of PBA’s recent listening sessions on the Clean & Safe contract renewal gave community members the option to testify in person 一 all others required access to the internet and a digital device. And while PBA hosted an exclusive session for business owners, they never sought the voices of residents who are houseless, even though many have the most contact with Clean & Safe officers. These closed-door policies have one effect: no one outside the Clean & Safe cabal has any say in the training, qualifications, or standards of the private security force.

This is doubly dangerous because private security targets those who are already marginalized in our community, including housed people of color and houseless people of all races. (Communities of color 一 specifically Black and Native American communitiesare represented at disproportionately higher rates in Portland’s homelessness population.)

By the time you finish your reading it’s dark. The library is about to close. Looking down at page after page of notes, covered in arrows and question marks, you wonder: who is the PBA? How much are they spending on private security? If they aren’t spending their entire $5 million budget on security and attorneys, where could the rest of it be going?

Chapter 4: The Curious Case of the Bait Bike

You push through the heavy doors of the library and into the darkness on SW 10th. The cool fall air sends a shiver up your spine; you pull your coat a little tighter. These days, the library feels like one of the last truly public spaces left in town: a place where anyone can come in from the cold or use the bathroom 一 simply be a human 一 without having to pay a fee.

You’ve had a fruitful night of research. Now you know the Central Library sits just outside the boundaries of Clean & Safe, an Enhanced Services District (ESD) where private armed security officers freely roam the streets with no oversight from the city. In that sense, Clean & Safe is the opposite of the library: Instead of opening its arms to neighbors seeking shelter, the ESD forces out people who have nowhere else to go.

The bell of the streetcar clangs, pulling you out of your reveries. You rush on board towards your next destination. After a few stops, you hop off and hurry inside a dingy brick building. Down the hall, light streams through a frosted glass door emblazoned with the words “CRIMINAL DEFENSE.”

You nudge the door open. Behind a desk littered with stacks of paper, a woman in a Stetson fedora punches notes into a battered typewriter. A cigarette dangles from her lips. Maybe she’s leaning a little hard into this Maltese Falcon bit. Then again, with everything you’ve learned about Clean & Safe, you’re starting to feel like you stepped onto the set of a film noir.

“Ah, come in,” she says, clearing a seat. “I wondered when you’d come to see me. They say I’m a criminal defense lawyer, but I’ll tell you what: the real criminals aren’t my clients on the streets 一 they’re the ones working in swanky high-rises downtown.”

You came to her office on a tip from your contacts on the street. She’d taken on pro bono work for houseless folks who had run-ins with Clean & Safe security. She says, “The sweeps are traumatizing and inhumane. They’re also criminal: City contractors steal the belongings of houseless community members and take them to the dump. In at least one case, they stole a woman’s medication, leading to her death!”

But sweeps are just the beginning, she explains. ESDs increase resources for policing, which in turn increases criminalization. Within ESDs, houseless people are arrested 22 times more frequently than in other parts of Portland. ESD resources may even create crime where it doesn’t otherwise exist: Clean & Safe and its private security contractor recently bought the Portland police a “bait bike,” a $2,000 bicycle equipped with GPS tracking, to ensnare people into theft.

Even worse, some ESDs pay for extra staff members in district attorneys’ offices to speed up prosecution. Pre-pandemic, ESDs also funded and operated community courts that could sentence people who were arrested to clean the streets under the supervision of ESDs 一 all for the crime of being poor.

“Those DAs in their $3,000 suits and air conditioned offices love to prosecute people for the terrible offense of napping in public,” she snorts.

You’re starting to connect the dots. Under the guise of Clean & Safe, private businesses are building their own security forces, increasing arrests, funding prosecutors, and sentencing houseless people to do their bidding for free. They really are running a secret city within the city.

As the lawyer finishes her story, she says, “If you want to get to the bottom of this, you’ll need to look into who runs Clean & Safe.” Suddenly, she leans forward and points a shaking finger at you. “But if you do, be on your guard. Powerful people are wrapped up in this … and they’ll do anything they can to keep their grip on this city.”

Stepping back outside onto the foggy streets downtown, you can’t help but wonder: Who is really the criminal in this case? Who are the puppeteers pulling the strings? What’s their agenda? Who really runs Clean & Safe … and the streets of downtown Portland?

Chapter 5: The Map of the Secret City Within the City

Last night was too much to take in — a secret city within the city?!

Who would believe that?

To clear your head, you pass the early morning strolling the waterfront. Pausing to watch the waves tease the boat moored north of the bridge, you continue south towards Salmon Springs. For a moment it seems the fog is starting to lift. You shake out your coat, relieved at the promise of a sunny morning. But you’ve only caught a gap in the fog — it hasn’t lifted at all. And is this fog, or is it something else? What fog carries such a pungent, chemical stench, the way that cities used to smell? You wipe your eyes with your sleeve and tell yourself you’re overtired, it’s nothing, you’re imagining things. But you can’t shake this sense of something nefarious rolling through the city.

You turn and head back across SW Naito, when a yellow-gloved hand beckons you down a parking ramp. The man wears the jumpsuit of a janitor and draws your attention to the cameras overhead. “Stay close,” he warns, “we don’t have much time!” Through heavy doors and down dark corridors, he delivers you into a windowless room and flips the switch. When your eyes adjust, you can make out a giant corkboard with printouts in haphazard array, with yarn anchored to the sheets with pushpins.

And that’s when it clicks.

“This can’t be real,” you insist.

The man stands straight, radiating confidence. “Oh it’s real alright.”

You protest that it looks like a meme. This draws a laugh. “Don’t you know what building you’re in?” His rubber-gloved hand taps a sheet in the corner of the board bearing the now-familiar mark of Downtown Clean & Safe, his eyes flashing with conspiracy. “These business types,” he goes on, “they’ve got plans for this town.” There’s a sudden shift in his demeanor — one yellow glove extending back to the switch while the other reaches for your sleeve. “This way,” as he tugs you out the door. “Make it quick!”

Back on the surface, you sprint home with a burst of energy and a food cart tofu wrap in hand, running what you’ve just seen against what you already know. As your shoes clap the pavement you rehash the basics: Clean & Safe is an Enhanced Services District (ESD) covering 213 blocks of downtown Portland. Every business and homeowner with an address inside the district pays a mandatory fee (on top of other taxes and fees). These fees furnish Clean & Safe with more than $5 million each year.

Unlike with the city budget, ESD ratepayers have no say in how their money gets spent. There is no public budget process they can shape — no votes to cast, no commissioners or representatives to contend with. Decisions take place behind the closed doors of the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), a group that speaks for some of the city’s wealthiest businesses.

You turn the lock and settle in at the table, not bothering to hang up your coat, and start to diagram your findings.

First, you write down City and the letters ESD and draw a short line between them. From ESD, you draw a line down to PBA, the primary contractor for Clean & Safe. The PBA lays claim to 8 of Clean & Safe’s 12 staff positions, and three-quarters of Clean & Safe’s Board of Directors represent PBA member organizations.

From PBA you draw a three-pronged line connecting to PPB, PPI, and CCC, each one representing a subcontract the PBA holds with another agency.

PPB: Clean & Safe gets six officers from the Portland Police Bureau for its patrols (you draw a dashed line between City and PPB), and the PBA gets a say in which officers are assigned to Clean & Safe.

PPI: The six PPB officers work with the armed guards hired by Portland Patrol, Inc., a private security agency (a solid line between PPB and PPI) whose owner made it clear to the City Auditor that he answers to PBA, not to the City. You rummage through your files for your copy of the Auditor’s interview and tape it to the wall next to the sheet with your diagram, running a length of yarn between the pages.

CCC: The “Clean” in Clean & Safe, Central City Concern receives around 20% of the budget. What’s more, those arrested by the ESD’s private security officers and convicted in the ESD’s private court system have served out their sentences with CCC.

You step back to think through a hunch. Of the millions of dollars that Clean & Safe extracts from zoned-in businesses and residents, just over $1 million pays the salaries for staff, most of whom are PBA staff. And these staff work under the direction of a board effectively controlled by PBA members. Does Clean & Safe exist solely to benefit the Portland Business Alliance and its members?

A quick google lends credence to your hunch. According to Willamette Week, PBA’s CEO, a recent Brooklynite named Andrew Hoan, confirms the intermingling of Clean & Safe and the PBA: “It’s better for both organizations.” What’s more, the same article reports, “Audit results show that he and other administrative staff spend more than 50% of their time on Clean & Safe issues.” You print it out and tape it to the wall, using an old shoelace to draw a line between the sheets.

But wait a minute — more than 50% of their time? What issues could these be? You have the private police force, the paid-for positions in the district attorney’s office, the “community” court system, the branded garbage cans and sanitation teams? And why this scheme to get the City to assent to shaking down those 213 blocks of separate businesses and homes? Couldn’t PBA’s wealthy business owners raise their own $5 million? It’s like they really are constructing a whole other city — a mirror image of the legal one — from the inside out!

Worse still, PBA staff routinely violate lobbying rules and campaign finance regulations. In May, Hoan contested the Auditor’s finding that the PBA failed to disclose at least 25 interactions with city officials, levying the office’s second-ever fine for PBA’s undisclosed requests for “access, funding or action.” The Auditor also fielded campaign finance complaints against PBA board chair Vanessa Sturgeon and chair emeritus Mike Golub, whose individual contributions to Mayor Wheeler’s reelection campaign far exceeded voter-approved contribution limits.

By now your wall is looking like the corkboard that yellow-gloved janitor revealed. Your head begins to spin, your tofu wrap-fueled boost is fading, and the late nights are catching up to you. Before giving in at last and crashing on the bed, you turn your gaze back to the window, the fog still rolling through the streets like a smokescreen.

What future does this “secret city” portend for those who live here? How deep does PBA influence run at City Hall? What can Portland city government do to stop it? Who’s really pulling the strings here?

Chapter 6: A Journey Into the Belly of the Beast

Morning comes too soon, and you blink awake at the sun in your eyes. On your wall, the documents that spell out the truth to the secret city in the city. With all you’ve pieced together, you should feel proud. Except that what you’ve found is a deeply ineffective system that hurts people. You no longer want answers. You want to stop Clean & Safe and protect your community. The flood of adrenaline is almost better than coffee. Almost.

Per the city’s contract with Clean & Safe, it’s the City of Portland that’s supposed to monitor annual reports. You pace around your desk, find a copy of the Clean & Safe audit, and confirm your hunch: the City’s Revenue Division did not review any reports. Neither did Mayor Wheeler, the police commissioner charged with reviewing any reports regarding private security within the enhanced services district (ESD).

You can’t be the only one angry about this, you reason, so you dress and hurry outside to compare notes with your contacts. The woman who sent you to the library to learn about ESDs is sipping a cortado, her bright expression turning thoughtful once you explain that you’re searching for others who want to stop the ESDs. Now she points you towards City Hall, describing a press conference held by activists making exactly that demand.

You hurry over, stopping only for an oat milk turmeric latte. When you arrive, the press conference has just begun. You hear from Barbie Weber, who says that her camp was once swept ten times in a month: “Living outside, you lack the resources to properly store your belongings and it’s a constant battle. You want to be comfortable. And what is wrong with comfort? What is wrong with wanting that blanket that your granny made you?”

Other speakers detail the harms of the ESDs, still others talking about the ways they’re pushing back. You learn that even though the auditor’s office released their ESD report more than a year ago (and even though the End Clean & Safe coalition has been speaking to City Council members about the audit for weeks during the open comment period), the City has never publicly acknowledged the report, let alone taken action on its recommendations. When coalition members stressed the importance of a transparent, open contract renewal process, the City denied them: it refused to share draft contract language. Even worse, City Council let the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) hold inaccessible virtual hearings, the first two targeted only at housed community members who live or work inside the ESD. Only one hearing was held in person, allowing for the attendance of individuals who may not have easy internet or computer access. Despite this, the coalition members say, the feedback from community members was overwhelmingly negative towards the renewal, sharing their concerns that it was undemocratic and harmful. You swell with pride and gratitude for your fellow Portlanders.

At the end of the press conference, organizers remind you that the Clean & Safe contract will be up for a vote on September 23 at 2 PM. You note the date and start brainstorming testimony, doodling a chart in your notebook not dissimilar to the one on your wall, marking down phrases like, “no democratic process” and “brutality from private security” in the margins. As the page fills up you’re hit with a wave of anger. You can’t wait until the hearing on the 23rd. You turn on your heel and head towards City Hall.

To your surprise, the doors are unlocked. While it appears that the building is lightly staffed, you spot a bored young man at a desk behind a glass door labeled “Mayor Wheeler’s Office.” You head through the door.

“Can I help you?” the young man politely asks. You tell him you’re there to comment about ESDs. He looks confused, so you explain a little.

“Oh yeah, that,” he says, clicking his mouse for longer than seems reasonable. “Yeah, it’s up for a vote on the 23rd. Of course, PBA was just here, and they told us that there’s really nothing to worry about. It’s just a routine contract renewal.”

You stand there, taken aback by his blind faith in the PBA. He appears to not notice the expression on your face, and continues tapping away at his computer. At that moment, you see the door open, and a middle-aged man with the look of a washed-up surfer emerges. He begins barking orders at the young man, who starts furiously taking notes, when he notices you and stops short.

“Sorry, I don’t have time for you. I have a meeting,” he states, brushing past you.

You start to explain that you’re concerned about the Clean & Safe renewal, how it will continue to hurt houseless Portlanders, how it doesn’t help anyone, and he turns back to you and cuts you off.

“You know, I’m so sick of you activist types coming in here and telling me how to do my job. The community loves Clean & Safe. It works great! Don’t you know there’s a homeless crisis?” He looks you up and down, taking in your coat with its missing button and worn shoes with a sneer. “By the way, I don’t have to listen to you. You’d never donate to my next campaign.” He storms off, slamming the door behind him.

In the glow of that warm reception, you pause to collect yourself. Finally, you head out of City Hall. You know that there’s only one option left if you want to stop this renewal, and that’s to get as many people as possible to tell City Council to vote the renewal down, or at least to pause the vote. You begin calling your contacts as soon as you leave the silence of that strange building. Clean & Safe can be stopped … but stopping it will take everyone’s help.