JAISON KIRK is the type of camper many Portlanders complain about. He arrived from Utah three months ago, drawn by what he'd heard of the city's ample services for the homeless.
Eugene Olson calls himself a "rich homeless person," with his monthly disability income affording him a tent, bus fare, and a gas-powered generator.
Rico Malone is supposed to be indoors. He's a homeless veteran—the very population city and county leaders have been congratulating themselves for housing at high rates this year. Malone says that good news hasn't reached him or his seizure-detecting German shepherd, Maxine.
These men's paths to homelessness are vastly different, of course, but this month they all found themselves clinging to the same bit of dirt: a controversial homeless encampment near the intersection of North Greeley and Interstate that took shape earlier this year.
It's a placid patch of land, stretching for a half mile beside a busy road and rail yard, but resembling a forgotten city park more than the mishmash of public and private ownership indicated in county tax records. And at a time when rising public outcry has given way to fluid homeless sweeps around town, the grassy strip on Greeley has become a tenuous sanctuary.
It's also the subject of a familiar tug of war.
While the people staying at the Greeley camp—christened Hazelnut Grove by some of its denizens—ask officials for permanent dumpsters and access to portable toilets, the familiar machinery used to push the homeless from place to place in this city has kicked into gear.
Union Pacific Railroad, which controls a big strip on the northern edge of the unused land, kicked campers off of its property on Friday, October 9, voicing vague concerns about "safety." The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), claiming "right of way" authority on some of the land and formal deed to two parcels, is planning a sweep as soon as October 15, though it's not entirely sure where its jurisdiction begins or ends.
And the City of Portland, facing pressure from advocates and just a week into a formally announced housing "state of emergency," says it wants to help, but doesn't know how much it can do.
In the middle of it all is a cluster of Portland's rapidly increasing homeless residents, living in a city that acknowledges it doesn't have enough resources to find them a better option.
"I'm gonna have to stay," Malone, the homeless vet, said earlier this month after being threatened with arrest for staying on Greeley. "I've got nowhere else to go."
At about 10 am on a Friday in October, the driver of a luxury car lies on his horn as he shoots off of Interstate 5 and onto Greeley. It's not a friendly or supportive honk. It is disruptive, malicious. The driver only takes his hand off the horn once he's past.
"That's all the time," says 42-year-old Raven Justice, one of the Greeley camp's founders, walking from tent to tent to warn campers of heavy rains on the way over the weekend. "They're trying to harass us."
It's a new occurrence for a camp that's only recently come into the limelight.
Hazelnut Grove popped up around five months ago—an ironic and direct effect of Portland's homeless sweeps. Justice and his husband were living near the Hawthorne Bridge in late May, he says, when the police bureau began ridding the Central Eastside of "entrenched" campers. Justice had volunteered with the Urban Farm Collective, which runs an organic garden on a small parcel on Greeley and is supportive of the homeless. He decided to move nearby, setting up camp with four others.
They stayed in a small clearing at the edge of the lot, Justice says, and then moved farther up a hill on the property. Today, Justice, his husband, and several others live in an elaborate compound with wooden pallet floors.
You can't see the compound from the road. That luxury car horn honker has no idea it's even there. The reason Hazelnut Grove's getting negative attention today is that it's become increasingly popular in the months since Justice and crew moved in. Now, instead of five campers secreted on a hill, the land is dotted with an ever-changing cast of tents—their occupants ranging from mess-leaving drug addicts to quiet people just looking for rest.
"The biggest part of being homeless is always being turned on," says Kirk, 44, the newbie from Utah, who says most of his belongings were immediately stolen when he lived downtown. "Even when you're sleeping you're always listening for sounds."
With the land on Greeley, campers say, sleep comes easier. There's not the ever-present threat someone will run off with everything you own.
"They're talking about it on Facebook," says Olson, 48, the self-described "rich" homeless person, who set up a tidy camp with Kirk and another man earlier this month. Olson's been homeless for three years in Portland, he says. He's been on a waiting list for subsidized housing for about a third of that.
"This is great," he said a couple of days after arriving at the Greeley property. "If we could stay here, a lot of things would change."
- Mercury Staff
Right now, that's an interesting "if."
With Mayor Charlie Hales urging quick action on building more homeless shelters, the city appears loath to take any action on the Greeley campers.
"If people are being good neighbors and being respectful and going into more low-impact types of sleeping, we're going to make sure we're only addressing complaints," says Josh Alpert, the mayor's chief of staff.
But there are complaints. The Overlook Neighborhood Association is furious about camping on the plot, even though it's removed from residences, businesses, and pretty much everything else.
"The city and the mayor's office have not engaged with us at all," says Chris Trejbal, a board member with the neighborhood group. "We want the city to be thinking strategically about what to do about homelessness. If you were thinking strategically, you would not pick this site."
At least one landowner agrees. Beyond the big Union Pacific plot, which has already been swept, four distinct entities control property around the Greeley camp: the city, ODOT, Clear Channel Communications, and the Oregon Sustainable Agricultural Land Trust (or OSALT, which owns the garden land).
And ODOT? It doesn't care about the city's housing emergency or the promise of new shelter space in coming months. It wants campers off its turf.
"This is not a problem that ODOT can solve," says spokesman Don Hamilton. "This is an issue that's been going on in Portland for over a century." According to signs the state agency posted October 6, sweeps may come at any point between October 15 and 24.
But it's not even entirely clear what land ODOT can sweep. Hamilton initially offered to show the Mercury a detailed map of the agency's property, and then rescinded the offer, saying the map wasn't ready.
Based on documents provided by the city, though, it appears ODOT's plans could mean significant upheaval in the Greeley camp. The agency's property may encompass the compound Justice and others inhabit in the woods (though the campers say they've been assured it won't be touched), and another large swath containing tents. When the state agency moves in, the layout of Hazelnut Grove will be very, very different.
Then again, the City of Portland also has a sizeable stake in the property. Earlier this year, Hales said he'd consider allowing more organized tent camps like Right 2 Dream Too, the homeless rest area in Old Town. Now we've got a housing "emergency" loosening the zoning code that makes those kinds of camps hard to create. If the mayor's serious about easing off homeless Portlanders while he finds more resources, he's got his chance.
That would be welcome news for someone like Kirk, fresh to town from Utah. Even more welcome, though, would be a shot at housing.
"I wanna get indoors before I forget what it's like to be indoors," he says. "I can feel it slipping away."