FOR PORTLAND homeless advocates, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is often seen as something of a ceaseless broom.
When camps spring up on ODOT property, state employees are quick to post the clean-up notices they're compelled to give under a court settlement, and prompt about moving people along when those notices come due.
We've seen this machinery kick into gear at least twice in the last two months—once when ODOT prepared to toss campers off state-owned land adjacent to the new Hazelnut Grove encampment on North Greeley, and again when activists sent up an alarm over a pending sweep near I-205 and SE Holgate.
But here's what's remarkable about those two instances: ODOT didn't follow through.
In the case of the North Greeley campers, the agency opted to give the land to the City of Portland. And ODOT workers left the I-205 camp when demonstrators showed up to protest the planned sweep.
Even more interesting, there's some indication there could be increased flexibility in the agency's stance toward camps going forward.
Last week, ODOT officials met with folks from the City of Portland and a staffer in Governor Kate Brown's office for the first of what may be several talks about how the city and state can better coordinate enforcement of camping laws.
Right now, that coordination is all askew. Mayor Charlie Hales' office is in the midst of crafting a new city policy about camping enforcement—one that acknowledges the city's lack of housing and shelter space, and seeks to ensure camps are moved only when it's deemed necessary. Hales' office says it's also on the verge of formally permitting the Hazelnut Grove camp, and his staff is actively seeking other plots of land where camps might be allowed.
ODOT, on the other hand, hasn't budged much. But here it is at the table.
Josh Alpert, Hales' chief of staff, told me last week that the discussions have been tentative so far. The city wants a clear idea what ODOT's policies and goals are. ODOT wants the same from the city.
ODOT has also agreed to look for plots of unused land it might give the city, as it did on North Greeley, Alpert says.
More significantly, Alpert is mulling what role the Portland Police Bureau should have in ODOT cleanups going forward. The agency often asks for officers to be on hand when staffers think there might be resistance from campers.
"We are not mandated to allow police to work with them," Alpert says. "At the same time, ODOT is a partner. Before we just walk away and say 'absolutely not,' we want to understand."
Obviously, if Hales were to snatch police away from ODOT, it would be a new twist in what's already been a corkscrewing four months in the city's approach to housing and homelessness.
For now, it's just interesting to know the talks are occurring—and that ODOT's ever-sweeping broom might be slowing.