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Portland’s Houseless Camping Issue and the Effort to Solve It

Photo caption: A van that was home to a SE Portland family in 2019. Photo by Katrina Ramsey.

“I never trust the police to do the right thing.” Lisa Lake is the CEO of Advocacy5, a nonprofit organization that supplies food, loans and showers to the houseless, especially women at risk of sexual abuse. Most controversially, she and her employees create camps. Lake says that those camps are removed “every time” by the police, who are required by the city to remove illegal campsites if those camps do not move after being given a notice. When the notice—which has a time limit that can range from 48 hours to ten days—expires, police typically find the camp, and its owner, in the same place. Campers leave much of the time at that point, with a professional urging them to leave. But they occasionally stay, resisting the removal and getting arrested shortly thereafter as they protest law enforcement’s methods of eliminating the illegal campsites. While those sites remain an issue, some solutions have been reached.

In September 2018, the ninth United States Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that sleeping on public property was not a criminal offense. As a result, it is a constitutional violation to arrest people for camping even if a campsite is unsanctioned, as many of them are. It is only a crime once the camper resists the removal. This has happened in the past, such as one camp in North Portland where several campers were arrested.

Contractors hired by the city clean up campsites after removal. The major contractors are Pacific Patrol Services (a security company) and Rapid Response Monitoring Services. However, the contractors are rarely called. Instead, local departments such as Portland Parks & Recreation use their own workers for cleaning the sites. Some public cleaners, the ones hired by the Oregon Department of Transportation, are inmates, as a sort of “chain gang,” according to Vahid Brown, the Housing Policy Coordinator for Clackamas County. (The inmates are required to do labor for the county, hence the comparison to chain gangs.) Those “sweeps” are overseen by the Sheriff Department. Brown said that he was once told by an inmate who was working on the sweep that the Sheriff Department had singled out inmates with a history of houselessness. “Because the Sheriff Department was going to be sent to do a sweep of people experiencing homelessness, they were going to have other homeless people do it, sort of as a second level of insult,” says Brown.

While there is an online system for filing campsite reports, known as the “One Point of Contact” system, citizens tend to call 911 when they see illegal camps and those who sleep in them. The reports are filed in the Portland Police’s log, which can be found on Twitter as “Unwanted Persons.” Police respond to these calls between emergencies. 911 or not, reports have removed countless camps. In the week of November 25 through December 1, 2019, the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program received 597 reports of 145 different campsites, and 41 campsites were posted and cleaned. 38,000 people in Portland have no home, or about two percent of the city’s population, according to a recent report by Portland State University.

Some campsites remain even after they are reported. The Hazelnut Grove campsite, one of the largest in Portland, was reported in 2015, but it was never removed. The report was stopped with the help of Brown and private advocates. That camp was much larger than most, and had more widespread support than a camp with just one family, let alone a single person.

Lake and her nonprofit have constructed camps, usually without obtaining permission from the city, since its founding in February 2016. Within the camps, food is supplied and campers can get loans, which they must pay back. There is no additional interest. Showers are provided for use. A member of Advocacy5 is present at the camp to help the campers adjust. The camps are intended to create a stable home while residents attempt to find a more traditional one. Campers are taught how to treat the land properly.

Not all houseless or formerly houseless people distrust the police. Wynde Dyer is an artist who experienced houselessness during the early 2000s. She lived in her vehicle at the time, next to a pair of “hippies.” After some time, the neighbors began to harass her, throwing food and spilling soda on her car. Eventually, they called the police, though Dyer had done the same not long before. When the officer arrived, he surveyed the scene, learned the details and decided to give her a note. The note, which later prevented other officers from removing the camp, described Dyer’s situation and her behavior. Dyer is grateful for that note.

The neighbors continued to harass Dyer. Unfortunately, other neighbors helped, and their strategy “kind of backfired.” She received support from a number of neighbors, and one even gave her a loan to cover her car insurance for six months. The support kept her afloat along with the police officer’s note. However, as Dyer admits, she was better off than most people experiencing houselessness. “I was fortunate to still have friends [and have] keys to their house so I [could] cook,” she says.

The houseless often avoid shelters—legal homes in which they can stay and sleep—for several reasons. Shelters have a history of assault and theft. Sleeping quarters are small and feel impersonal. They can’t easily come and go from the shelter, and they do not feel as though the shelter is their home. Perhaps most importantly, there are more people experiencing houselessness in Portland than there is available space in the shelters, per Brown.

Sanctioned, legal campsites, which have been formed in the past after protesting and grassroots efforts, have waste disposal bins and bathrooms. Supervisors often patrol the camps. As a result, crime rates have dropped in some neighborhoods where sanctioned homeless camps were present. People committing crimes are often spotted by the supervisors as they ensure their fellow campers’ safety. One such camp existed in Portland’s Chinatown neighborhood. Before the camp arrived, the neighborhood had experienced high crime rates. Those numbers dropped as it was there, according to Brown. After the camp was moved, the crime rates rose again.

Illegal campgrounds, meanwhile, can develop litter in neighborhoods, as the campers have no waste disposal available. Most of their waste may end up on the street rather than in a dumpster. While the government can retrieve garbage by car through Metro’s Bag Service, in which trash left and labeled by the homeless is collected by the city, the service is not always used.

Some homeowners would report a campsite if garbage was left on the street. Ron Walk, one Portland resident, says that he would report a campsite in front of his house, especially if the people littered. “I want a clean, orderly neighborhood to live in,” Walk says. “When people start just dumping trash around, that’s something I feel obligated as a citizen to report, and to solve, because I don’t want to live in a dirty neighborhood.” Walk adds that while some camps should be removed, camping should remain decriminalized. “I don’t think it’s a criminal act, but it is a problem,” Walk says. “I don’t think people want to be homeless, and I think they’d want a solution too… people should have safe, secure housing.”

Both the people in the campsites and those involved in their cleanup have made mistakes in the past, and both have done things right. Homelessness is the top issue for the city of Portland, as multiple polls of residents from Metro and from the company DHM Research (Davis, Hibbitts, & Midghall, Inc.) have demonstrated. Rising prices for housing and lack of space have contributed to the issue. Still, there remains hope, from Dyer’s neighborhood support to the ninth Circuit Court decision. Without trust, though, that change may never take place.

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Portland’s Houseless Camping Issue and the Effort to Solve It