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Owner pulls decades-old forging business out of Portland due to surrounding homeless camps

KATU Portland logo KATU Portland 10/7/2021 Angelica Thornton
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When will things get better? 

Throughout the pandemic, we've heard Portland city leaders talk about how they're tackling the city's most significant issues, including homelessness and crime, but few are willing to set a timetable. 

For one business owner in North Portland, it's already too late. Tom Leaptrott owns a steel forging operation in Cathedral Park. He closed the shop ten months ago. The buoy swivels used by the Coast Guard and the decommissioned drill presses will be gone in 30 days, either scrapped or moved to his new location in Southwest Washington. It's something the Portland-native says he never imagined would happen.

PAST COVERAGE | Lost Ground: Investigation examines effects of COVID-19 on Portland's homeless crisis

"We've owned Columbia Forge for over 20 years. It's been here for 70 years," said Leaptrott. "We had to move out because of, basically, a lack of leadership from City Hall and the inability to stop crime and enforce trespass and make it livable."

Homeless camps surround Columbia Forge and Machine Works. On the street out front, you'll see illegally parked campers and piles of debris. Behind Leaptrott's property that stretches to the Willamette River, we found nearly twenty tents. He says the problems have been piling up for several years but became unmanageable during the pandemic.

"The last year, it's really gotten bad," said Leaptrott. "They're trying to steal metals and all sorts of things, and they break in just to vandalize sometimes. It's really, really awful."

Leaptrott says he's experienced about fifty break-ins. Police haven't been able to do much, and security measures don't seem to work. So, he had no choice but to take his business, and its twenty jobs, out of Portland.

"It's so frustrating that I had to leave," said Leaptrott. "You know, it takes a lot to move an operation like this."

READ MORE | Six years have passed since Portland declared the homeless crisis an emergency

Leaptrott says he feels like city leaders have given up, afraid to make tough choices. KATU News told City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees the Joint Office of Homeless Services, about Leaptrott leaving.

"I've heard a lot of those stories, and they're one reason why I wanted to run for office," said Ryan.

Ryan says he, too, is worried about where we are as a city and where we need to go, but he's working on it. He says the new city-sanctioned Safe Rest Villages are a step in the right direction.

"All I can do with my position is to make sure that we bring along others in the city to start building these villages, so we can start to see solutions, and we can start to see our houseless community receive the support they need," said Ryan.

Ryan hopes to have the Safe Rest Villages up and running by the beginning of 2022. But one big question remains; will people want to go?

RELATED | Portland residents prepare for new 'Safe Rest' homeless villages

Tiffany Scott and her boyfriend have been living in a camper for six years.

"I had four years clean. He had five years clean, but we recently got kicked out of the clinic. So, it's been kind of hard not relapsing."

Scott's camper has been parked about a block away from Leaptrott's shop during the pandemic. She said living out on the street is hell, but the Safe Rest Villages might not be the answer for her.

"I don't trust it because funding can be pulled very easily," said Scott.

We asked her if she would consider it and under what parameters.

"If I can stay with my boyfriend," said Scott. "I get why they want to split couples up and stuff, but we've been together for a long time. It's been almost ten years, and we've been through a lot together."

Scott and Leaptrott both used the same word to describe what's happening in Portland: heartbreaking. Leaptrott has cleaned up the trash himself where Scott lives. He even put a dumpster behind his building after he says the city fined him a thousand dollars for garbage that was not his. He pays people trespassing on his property to fill it up.

"We do a lot to keep this place safe and clean," said Leaptrott. "But at some point, you have to kind of go, you know, you need support from the city to come in here and, you know, be a part of the solution."

Solutions and ideas that are too late for Leaptrott and perhaps other businesses, too sick and tired to stick around.

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