- Adam Wickham
Portland police are planning their most intensive crackdown on homeless camping in years, saying complaints over "entrenched" homelessness have reached a tipping point. Beginning Tuesday and extending into June, officers will target encampments throughout the city's Central Eastside—demanding campers take down their tents, and pushing social services on them.
"For a couple of weeks there’s gonna be sort of an ongoing effort to address the entrenched camps," Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Simpson told the Mercury Friday afternoon, adding cops would be looking to "get people into services that are not connected now, or avoiding them. Clean up some of the garbage."
Portland's got a reputation for treating homeless camping with a relatively light touch, but it's nothing new for officers to cite people for living in tents throughout the city—cops have been doing so for a while now, even arresting campers by leveraging the state's law against "interfering with a peace officer."
The effort that will begin next week is more intense. In some respects, it sounds like the sweeps Mayor Charlie Hales ordered around City Hall in 2013. Simpson says orders for the action—he insists "sweep" is the wrong word, though many homeless people and homeless advocates would call it that—came at the direction of Assistant Chief Bob Day, who helped pioneer similar efforts when he oversaw the bureau's Central Precinct.
"It definitely is one of the most coordinated efforts to address the homeless problems on the Eastside and the entrenched camping there," Simpson said. Officers from each of the city's three police precincts will work the clean-up effort. Simpson didn't know how many cops would be involved all told.
The enforcement comes as Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz say they've found a new home for homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too. It would sit just east of the new Tilikum Crossing bridge, not far from the areas police are planning to clear out.
And it's a big push as Hales' proposed budget for next year includes more than $1 million for an "intensive street engagement and clean-up initiative." As explained by Hales and his staff, the effort partly involves offering intensive services to bad actors in the most-concerning camps, the theory being that once the nucleus of problem activity is taken away, people disperse.
Hales is also pushing money to find housing for homeless veterans, and to provide year-round shelters for women. If the projects are funded by city council, money will be available starting July 1.
Cops, politicians, and advocates for the homeless all anecdotally say Portland's homeless community is growing larger, and pushing increasingly into areas like the Springwater Corridor trail. And it's true homelessness is as visible as it's been in recent memory on the Central Eastside.
After Simpson and I hung up, I checked a few of the areas cops plan to focus on: the Eastbank Esplanade and camps around SE Water ("Definitely not limited to those areas," Simpson said). There are tents on the grassy areas overlooking the river near the east end of the Hawthorne Bridge, and tents below the bike/pedestrian walkways that curlicue from the bridge down to the esplanade. Some of those were likely dispersed by a recent sweep, and have since made their way back.
Police insist they're being inundated with calls, and our yearly survey of Hales' voicemails shows his office is no stranger to these complaints.
"This is not the Portland police telling people this is a problem," Simpson said. "This is people telling us it’s a problem."
At the same time, results of an every-other-year homeless count that will soon be released by the Portland Housing Bureau aren't expected to show a marked uptick in houseless people from the 2013 count, which found 2,869 people sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter.
The thing is—and Simpson acknowledges this—the sort of targeted enforcement police are planning isn't doing much to solve that problem. It may convince some people to accept social services, but it'll largely push encampments to another part of the city, since there's still not enough shelter space or affordable housing to actually address homelessness in Portland. And it's almost certainly going to result in people going to jail.
"Our goal is not to arrest people," Simpson says. "It’s not an effective way to address the problem." But, he concedes, "we’ll arrest people if people just flat-out refuse to comply."
I asked people hanging out around Central Eastside encampments if they'd heard about the cops' impending action.
"They're here everyday, anyway," said a young guy who gave his name as Bob, and didn't want to talk further.
Living underneath a viaduct on the eastside of the Hawthorne Bridge, near SE 3rd and Madison was a man named Emilio. He was eating takeout in a red padded chair, outside of a squat shelter wrapped in brown tarp. Two smaller green chairs were set out, as if for visitors, and the area around Emilio's tent was immaculate.
"I don't have a drug addiction, I don't have a smoking addiction, I don't drink," Emilio told me (he didn't want to give his full name). "I just can't find housing."
Emilio survives on a combination of Supplemental Security Income and money from odd jobs. He says he he takes care of his block, picking up rubbish for the businesses in the area and encouraging neighboring encampments to respect the property ("This is the cleanest block in the whole area."), and makes a point of dressing in clean clothes (a white t-shirt and jeans Friday evening). He talks knowledgeably about the push for a $15 minimum wage, and he thinks the system for helping people out of homelessness is deeply broken.
Emilio says he's been homeless since he got out of prison two years ago. He lived in Dignity Village for a time, he says, and on other property near the airport before heading closer to downtown. He wants a home, but says his block of SE Madison is clean, and that people respect him and his possessions. I don't know whether Emilio is an especially sympathetic example or not, but he's unquestionably an example of the "entrenched" campers police are going to move next week.
Emilio's heard the cops are coming, too. A friend told him.
"As far as I know, things are gonna change," he said. "I don't know when. I don't think they should pick on this block."
I asked where he'd go if police officers demand he take down his structure—a violation of city code—next week. Emilio repeated my question back to me.
"Where will I go?"