Portland homeless crisis: sportswear CEO’s threat prompts soul-searching

Tim Boyle, CEO of Columbia Sportswear, has threatened to relocate the Portland headquarters of one of his brands, citing safety concerns. How to resolve the issue is leaving the city divided

Threats by the billionaire CEO of Columbia Sportswear to relocate one of his brand’s headquarters out of downtown Portland over homelessness concerns have prompted protest and introspection in the city.

Tim Boyle threw down a gauntlet on 10 November in the Oregonian newspaper when he wrote that its Sorel brand, which produces footwear, was considering moving. Its employees, Boyle said, were being “threatened” and “menaced” by people “near our office,” or “camping in the doorway”.

“I am so concerned about the safety of our employees at the Sorel headquarters that we are taking the next 90 days to re-evaluate our location decision,” he said.

Boyle’s op-ed never used the word “homeless”, a fact which he pointed out in a second statement and in the media, but many in the city read between the lines, not least in the reference to camping. A demonstration in front of his downtown flagship store seemed to have led to its closure for a day recently, and Boyle has upped the ante with continued public statements. The imbroglio is another cold splash of water for believers in “Portland exceptionalism” – the notion that the progressive city is immune to broader social problems.

“We have daily defecation in the building’s atrium,” Boyle said on Oregon Public Broadcasting last week.

Boyle’s talk of feces isn’t the only touchy issue in which the company is enmeshed: unlike North Face, REI and Patagonia, the company didn’t proclaim its opposition to the Trump administration’s shrinkage of national monuments in Utah on its home page. (It did, however, sign an industry group’s letter.)

“I think Tim Boyle may have a legit complaint about people hanging out,” said longtime advocate Ibrahim Mubarak. “But to put an ultimatum before a city official to get rid of these houseless people or I’m going to leave the city, that’s cruel. Everybody knows the houseless community don’t have nowhere to go.”

Through Columbia Sportswear, Boyle declined an interview request.

The actions of Portland mayor Ted Wheeler in the wake of Boyle’s comments seem conflicting.

On 30 November, the mayor tweeted that “homelessness is not a crime” and added that “it’s irresponsible to conflate homelessness and crime”. In the days leading up to that tweet, however, the mayor’s office pushed for the designation of eight blocks of “pedestrian use zones”, one of which includes the Columbia Sportswear flagship store, co-located with 40 employees who work at the Sorel headquarters. The result is that homeless people are forbidden from sitting or sleeping on the sidewalk, historically a highly controversial type of restriction in Portland.

Intriguingly, in a discussion on Oregon Public Broadcasting of the context in which he wrote his op-ed, Boyle related that the mayor had “asked me: ‘Listen, we need more policemen on the street’”, to which Boyle replied that he would “help”. In e-mailed comments, the mayor’s spokesman, Michael Cox, said “there is nothing in this segment that implies” that the mayor asked Boyle to write the op-ed.

In the space of five minutes on a crystalline, windy Thursday, the situation on a corner in front of Columbia Sportswear encapsulated the controversy.

First, Toby Bean took a break from politely panhandling and protested Boyle’s portrayal. “There are some crazy people out here. But regular homeless people are pretty courteous.”

Next, a 50-something white man in tattered clothing passed, sing-song chanting to himself a scary, rapidfire barrage of expletives and racial slurs. (Oregon was ranked 49th of 51 states and Washington DC this year for overall mental health services.)

A minute later, a passerby, Joe Lieneweber, 35, staged a mini-protest by defiantly sitting on the ground despite the ban. “I’m probably wearing Columbia attire right now,” Lieneweber said, taking off his jacket and discovering a label for prAna – a brand purchased by Columbia in 2014 for $190m. “I love their stuff, but I can’t really get behind it anymore.”

People from Portland Habilitation Center replace signs around Portland, Oregon.
People from Portland Habilitation Center replace signs around Portland, Oregon. Photograph: Benjamin Brink/AP

Public-safety statistics do not appear to fully validate Boyle’s concerns. While Portland’s police-officers-per-capita numbers are low compared to US cities, FBI crime statistics show crime is down locally on a broad range of measures.

“I think that we can safely say that our crime stats are much lower than they are in a lot of other cities,” said police spokesman Sgt Christopher Burley. The Portland police bureau “does not capture” housing data and cannot assess whether homeless people commit more crimes than others, Burley said.

Boyle has said he’s received a lot of support since speaking out. And even those on the other side acknowledge it is not cut-and-dried.

“It’s hard for me to read [Boyle’s statements] as anything else but: ‘I really don’t want homeless people outside of my business,’” said Gregory McKelvey, co-founder of Portland’s Resistance, which was formed in response to Donald Trump’s election. But he noted: “My mom actually is on the opposite side of this issue. She works downtown, and she’s like, ‘Sometimes I feel unsafe’. I obviously had to think about that. That could be a valid point.’”

Ironically, it’s possible some of those camping in Columbia Sportswear’s doorways are wearing its jackets. In November, Columbia donated 25 boxes of clothing to a nonprofit that manages nine shelters in the metro area. It’s one of many philanthropic efforts by the company and its employees.

It’s also a drop in the bucket compared with the company’s $2.38bn in annual sales.

This article was amended on 12 December 2017 to correct a reference to the Trump administration’s shrinkage of national monuments in Utah, and to reflect the ambiguity in Tim Boyle’s comments regarding the context in which he wrote his op-ed.

This article was first published in The Guardian.