PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Five years ago, the The city of Portland cleared 3,122 homeless camps. The following year, that number fell to 2,828, then to 2,169. Last year, only 248 homeless camps were cleared in Portland.
The dramatic drop in the number of cleared camps is largely due to the fact that the policies carried out during the pandemic have left them alone. At the same time, the city’s budget to carry out cleanups has more than quadrupled. City officials said it was because “there has been an increased need to more comprehensively address unauthorized urban camping.”
It means trying to get people into homeless services instead of just kicking them out. This slow process is part of the reason residents of Portland neighborhoods feel abandoned.
“I’m not going to get kicked out by the homeless”
Just off I-5 in North Lombard and Montana, residents told KOIN 6 News they tried to ask the city to help them clean up their neighborhood’s homeless camp.
“City officials or whatever should, like, listen to us,” Alex Hall said.
Dale Hardt said neighbors are “willing to share” space, “but it’s not sharing when they just take over a neighborhood and have no laws to follow.”
“The frustration is actually watching the encampments grow, get bigger and bigger and bigger,” neighbor Joel Morales said.
Laurie Sugahbeare said: ‘We are literally scared for our families, our property.
Over the months, their photos document tents, trash and RVs on both sides of the fence that separates the neighborhood from the highway. They saw fires, had packages stolen and were threatened.
“We are completely tolerant of homeless people. It’s not serious, but it reached a kind of threshold or limit when we started to observe a lot of drug dealings, like physical violence between people,” Hall said. “At one point we had someone who wanted to put our son, our eldest son who is two and a half, in a car.”
They said they were begging the city to do something.
“We shouldn’t have to shout so loud to get something done,” Hall said.
“This is my neighborhood. I come in, I clean up, I do my thing,” Hardt said. “And I’m not going to be chased away by homeless people.”
Sugahbeare said she just wanted to know what rules would apply. “Just tell me that.”
A cleaning was coming
On the city One Point of Contact website to report homeless camps, each dot represents complaint after complaint after complaint filed over the weeks.
In September, residents of the North Lombard and Montana neighborhoods were notified that a cleanup was planned. On the city’s website, Camp “North Lombard and Montana” was listed as “cleaned up” September 13.
The next line says: “Locations in bold indicate removal of camping.” This camp is indicated in bold.
The problem is, according to neighbors, the cleanup crew left a lot of trash on the neighborhood side of the fence — and didn’t hit the camp on the ODOT side of the fence. Nevertheless an intergovernmental agreement means it’s the responsibility of the city of Portland to get people out of homeless camps.
“It’s frustrating,” neighbor Vikki Payne said. “I know everyone in the city is on this and I’m exasperated that they’re lying now and saying they’re scrapping these camps. So everyone else in town, if they look at this website, they say, “Oh, this camp has been cleared.” Awesome.’ Of course, this is not the case.
City officials told KOIN 6 News that it is now removing homeless camps much larger than those removed before the pandemic. Sites that previously required a half-day work crew to remove now take around 2 weeks for 6 crews to clear.
From the end of October, the the agency carried out approximately 2800 site assessments in 2 months — is the number of times someone has visited a camp and assessed its health and safety for cleanup.
On the day KOIN 6 News visited the site, trash on the street side of the neighborhood was being cleaned up by Terrance Moses, who runs Neighbors helping their neighbors.
“I just think, I hope people see through me that we could be a little more compassionate and step out of our comfort zone and help others,” Moses said.
He spends 6 days a week doing cleanup work that the city cannot access through donations. He also spends a lot of time trying to build trust with people living in homeless camps to refer them to services.
Moses understands why the neighbors are so frustrated.
“A lot of things the government is letting down on is that there is no urgency behind it. They spend a lot of money on unnecessary types of trucks to do this kind of work,” he told KOIN 6 News. “They spend a lot of their time packing items because they’re using box trucks and they’re not funneling the money to the smaller organizations that do the vast majority of the work.”
Even if the neighbors report camps to the One Point of Contact websiteit’s not always easy to get a consistent answer to clean up a site.
In one camp, electrical cords ran from a utility box to tents. At least one box was a Century Link (now Lumen) box.
A spokesperson told KOIN 6 News: “We understand the community is frustrated – and so are we. We have secured our cross boxes, including placing padlocks and chains. Unfortunately, we continue to see them damaged. This is important to us as the damage can potentially impact important services.
Different agencies, different responsibilities
ODOT takes care of the fence, gate locking and fixing holes. But ODOT can only clean up camps and trash if the City of Portland works to get people out of the camps first.
The persons responsible for cleaning the camps are the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program, which falls under the purview of Mayor Ted Wheeler. But when KOIN 6 News asked the mayor in the spring of 2021 about clearing camps along highways and underpasses, he said it was ODOT work.
“I want to be clear on each of the rights of way you just mentioned – the litter, the graffiti – it’s not the city. It is the state. These are ODOT rights-of-way. And that’s their responsibility,” Wheeler said at the time.
Abandoned vehicles fall under the jurisdiction of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
Two years ago, a resident of the Lombard/Montana neighborhood petitioned the PBOT to make parking on Montana Avenue illegal. But this request only shows that PBOT has handled a heavy workload for a long time. They replied: “Investigations take up to 12 weeks to complete depending on our backlog of applications and staff.”
Multnomah County manages the Joint Office of Homeless Services with the City of Portland to oversee the delivery of social services to the homeless.
City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who heads the city’s housing office, is spearheading the Effort Safe Rest Villages in the city. But this deployment is taking months longer than expected.
Next, consider that the city prioritizes which camps to clear first based on whether they have high or low impact. At the end of October, 71 camps were considered to have a high impact.
But city officials said, “If we used our pre-COVID-19 standard operating procedures, there would be between 200 and 300 sites that would meet the (high impact) criteria. The reason there are “only” 71 is that we have increased the threshold for removing encampments due to health and safety guidelines we have implemented in conjunction with Multnomah County Public Health and the CDC.
The Lombard/Montana homeless camp is considered high impact. Officials provided photos of the 3 days crews spent cleaning it up.
Officials with the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program declined an interview with KOIN 6 News. But spokeswoman Heather Hafer made this statement:
“…most of the items in the camp were considered personal property that people put in vehicles – which meant we couldn’t get them back. Although we did a camping move, I can understand how some people might think it was partially done. However, we have very strict guidelines on what we can and cannot collect and we always adhere to those guidelines…
As for the encampment on the other side of the (fence), each encampment is assessed and scheduled to be removed if necessary, on an individual basis…. but we must prioritize sites that pose the greatest risk to community health and safety – and can only operate to the extent that our resources permit.
The week the Lombard/Montana neighborhood was supposedly cleaned up, another 2004 New Campsites Report identifying 123 active campsites in Portland was recorded. Of these, 781 reports involved people living in their cars.
Resident Laurie Sugahbeare said she felt the neighborhood was in a loop.
“It’s a band-aid. These people who left here are now somewhere else in Portland doing the same thing they did in our neighborhood, to other people,” she said. “And I feel awful about this, because, I mean, no one deserves to live in the conditions that are now left here, even after they’re gone. What you can’t see on this report is the smell and it’s bad.
Homeless activists and motorhomes return
Just days after KOIN 6 News encountered neighbors in this area and the street was cleared, the RVs were back and parked again.
The motorhomes were followed by homeless activists all dressed in black, who appeared in the neighborhood to show their support for the homeless.
The neighbors felt intimidated.
Dale Hardt, however, is not going to surrender.
“This is our home. We live here. We don’t give that up,” Hardt said. “We have 2 little kids. If you ever saw them walking down the street holding hands, you would know why. we fight for it.