The Coldest Shoulder 

Portland Rousts a Homeless Camp that Tried to be Something More

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THE RESIDENTS of Phoenix Rising had collapsed their tents, busted up a food shed, and begun stacking the wood pallets they thought would be the bones of a refuge filled with gardens, fellowship, and, mostly, hope.

It was Saturday afternoon, September 11. Two days before, police had told the campers it was time to clear out, and that if they didn't they could be arrested—a ritual that plays out all over Portland, and the nation, whenever large groups gather in defiance of strict anti-camping laws.

This particular site sits on city land in the Rose Quarter's industrial rump, a brush-filled hillside off NE Wheeler that was slated to become a street decades ago.

And now the few remaining campers were preparing to part ways, facing an uncertain future that looked all too much like the past they hoped to escape.

"The cops can bust you wherever you are, whenever they want," Michael, an older man, was telling the others. "If you don't know it, when you don't have a home, you're fucked."

But Phoenix Rising wasn't supposed to be like all those other camps. In a time when shelters are full, waiting lists are long, and jobs are scarce, it was meant to be an answer—a helping hand back to employment and permanent housing, a place where community and security could flourish.

On their hillside, more than a dozen campers spent the past month clearing brambles and building a safe place to settle. Modeling themselves after Dignity Village, they agreed to a curfew and a code of conduct—no weapons or drugs. They elected officers. They sought legal aid and help from advocates like Sisters of the Road.

"We aren't disruptive junkies," says one resident, Lisa, who was elected president of the camp. "We are peaceful people who want to make gardens."

Not that it matters much. Police spokeswoman Kelli Sheffer said there had been a couple of calls about the site. And no matter how feral it is, it still shows up on city maps as a street.

"Right now, whatever it looks like, it's a public right of way," she says—stressing that officers, in this case, were trying to avoid a sweep.

Monday, with the site still vacant, neither Commissioner Nick Fish, head of the housing bureau, nor Mayor Sam Adams, in charge of the police bureau, were willing to rescue the campers.

While officials quietly turn a blind eye to smaller sites kept clean and quiet, they are less forgiving when the sites are large. Some of those sprawling sites, under bridges and in vacant lots, have been prone to violence and drugs, they say.

"We've looked at and rejected these large-scale encampments," Fish told the Mercury this week. "But if people have no choice, it's my preference that they find smaller, dispersed places to camp."

Phoenix Rising's campers remain committed. Although the setback has aggravated internal tensions about the camp's direction, its founders are filled with talk about keeping in touch.

They are mindful of the anguish it took before Dignity Village—the city-sanctioned camp in Northeast Portland—was finally given a home. They hope that struggle points the way for Phoenix Rising.

"We're going to do this regardless," says one of the founders, a burly young man who goes by the moniker Tank. "The bullshit isn't important. The goal is."

One camper, Josh, felt so strongly about the place he'd called home for the past few weeks that he came down for Saturday's vigil even though he's recuperating from surgery to remove 11 kidney stones. Josh is also a recovering addict, and he said the camp had been an oasis from the substance abuse that pervades other clusters of homelessness.

"I want to have a life, and not just an existence," says Josh. "This didn't mean shit to the city. They didn't care about it until some people showed up who needed some place to live."

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