WEEKS LATER, Trena Sutton says she's still shocked.
Back in mid-May, the East Portland homelessness advocate began getting urgent reports of campsite crackdowns on the Springwater Corridor.
She arrived at a section of the trail just west of SE 82nd, she says, to find Portland Parks and Recreation crews chopping down trees and shrubs that hours earlier had obscured homeless campsites. Campers had been given state-required notice, Sutton says, then were told to leave. She alleges what belongings they couldn't carry were covered with the fresh-cut brush.
"There were people coming to me crying," says Sutton, a volunteer staffer at the Clackamas Service Center on SE 80th. "It's basically a scorched-earth policy: Just don't leave anything they can live on."
It is, of course, perfectly legal for the city to enforce its anti-camping ordinance, and clearing campers off the Springwater is nothing new. But bureaus are supposed to be changing how they carry out those efforts.
In April, Mayor Charlie Hales' office announced the city had inked a new contract with Pacific Patrol Services (PPS), a Portland-based private security firm. Under the agreement, bureaus can notify PPS about illegal campsites. The contractor then serves notice and dismantles problem sites, freeing up strapped bureaus to carry out other work ["Sweeping Up," News, April 9].
And there's an added benefit to the plan the mayor's office introduced. Under the agreement, PPS has to fill out detailed "inventory reports," chronicling with photos and written descriptions what it confiscates, and giving the city a centralized record of that property.
More than two months into the contract, though, the city has tapped PPS to carry out cleanups just four times. And it's clear city bureaus aren't reaching out for the service as much as they might.
Take Portland Parks and Recreation, which oversees much of the Springwater.
Spokesman Mark Ross largely confirmed Sutton's account of the May cleanups. The parks department posted signs on Friday, May 16, he says, giving notice that several camps near the path were illegal and would be cleaned up. Crews returned the following Monday to cut "non-native" plants near the sites, forcing out two people who'd already been formally banned from the parkland.
"In this case, the campers took their belongings (except for debris and refuse) and left," Ross wrote in an email. "We have not needed to use PPS because, unlike other bureaus, [Parks and Recreation] has the capacity to clean most campsites using our own staff. We anticipate possibly utilizing PPS in the future to clean large camps in remote areas, ones that are beyond the capacity for our own maintenance crews to clean."
PPS hasn't been cut completely out of enforcement on the Springwater. The Portland Bureau of Environmental Services sent contract crews out to the trail twice in May, the city says.
The Portland Office of Management and Finance (OMF), which holds the cleanup contract, receives inventory reports from PPS once a month, according to spokeswoman Abby Coppock. It hadn't obtained accounts of three calls in May by deadline, and could offer only cleanup dates.
The fourth call occurred on April 29, when police pointed PPS to a small park at NE 102nd and Weidler. But when the crew arrived, it found only miscellaneous debris, not a campsite. The contractor spent about an hour at the site, according to its report, but under the terms of the contract, that hour would have allowed PPS to charge for a full day's work—$703.24.
"We are working with them on a more workable costing structure and have not been charged anything yet," says OMF spokeswoman Kelly Ball.
In the days after the cleanup contract was announced, some homelessness advocates had reservations. Private security officers and homeless people are often in conflict, and people like Street Roots Executive Director Israel Bayer stressed PPS staffers need training to handle sensitive cleanup situations.
The selective use of the contract raises new questions about how comprehensive and useful PPS' cleanup records will be. In explaining the plan to the Mercury in early April, mayor's office spokesman Dana Haynes said the contractor's involvement would help centralize data around campsite enforcement, giving the city a resource to look to when people complained their belongings had been confiscated. It would also help ensure city bureaus handle cleanups in roughly the same way.
"That's the kind of coordination we haven't done really well in the past," Haynes said at the time. "It's not going to be crystal clear and perfect, but we're really going to try."
But bureaus are still opting to handle campsite enforcement themselves, according to Marc Jolin, executive director of homeless outreach organization JOIN.
"Bureaus are looking at PPS, and in some instances doing their own work," says Jolin, whose organization is notified when a bureau posts notice at an illegal site. "There have been places where the Portland police are continuing to engage people. They're being intentional about that."
Even as cops and other bureaus use contractors sparingly, advocates and houseless people say homeless sweeps have been prevalent in recent days.
"It has to do with the [Grand Floral] parade," said Brad Gibson, 55, who was spending time outside of homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too on Tuesday, June 3. Asked whether it was police or private security officers carrying out enforcement, Gibson said: "All of the above. Pick 'E' every time."