The view from SE Oak and 37th of tents lining a block adjacent to Laurelhurst Park.
The view from SE Oak and 37th of tents lining a block adjacent to Laurelhurst Park. Alex Zielinski

The city has unveiled new guidelines regarding when homeless encampments on public property can be subject to removal by city contractors during the pandemic. Starting immediately, the city's Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP) will be giving 48-hour removal notices to camps that are determined to be a fire risk by Portland Fire and Rescue, that have been the source of verified criminal activity, that prevent ADA compliance, that impede school operations, or camps that are close to untreated sewage or biohazard materials.

The new rules, released Wednesday morning, signal the beginning of the city's return to its previous practice and pace of clearing campsites prior to the arrival of COVID-19. In a letter to City Commissioners outlining the new guidelines, HUCIRP manager Lucas Hillier characterizes the change as a "more assertive approach."

"[HUCIRP] has been attempting to reduce negative impacts of unsheltered homelessness while allowing individuals experiencing homelessness to shelter in place through the COVID-19 emergency," writes Hillier. "Unfortunately, we have been unable to successfully manage public spaces to a standard accepted as satisfactory with the tools we currently have available."

Before March 2020, HUCIRP would receive alerts of homeless camps on public property—whether it's a sidewalk or public park—from members of the public via its "One Point of Contact" website. Law enforcement and city employees would also flag HUCIRP if they noticed an encampment.

Those alerts usually drew a city staffer to the reported site, where they would post a notice warning to campers that they have 48 hours to clear their structures and property from the area before a city-retained cleanup crew arrives to sweep the campsite. If people didn’t clear the area before the crew arrived, the city would be legally obligated to collect all property that is “recognizable as belonging to a person and that has apparent use," and then store that property in a HUCIRP warehouse in Southeast Portland. Individuals had 30 days to reclaim their property before it's donated or thrown away.

HUCIRP has been following different protocols since March 2020, when the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released guidance for preventing the spread of COVID in outdoor homeless encampments. Instead of displacing campsites, HUCIRP put energy towards dispersing outdoor bathrooms and hand-washing stations across the city in areas accessible to homeless Portlanders. Then, in June, HUCIRP announced it would be posting 48-hour removal notices at campsites that had eight or more occupied structures, was preventing pedestrians or others using the public space from keeping six feet away from the structures, or was inhabited by individuals linked to criminal behavior.

These new standards meant the city was still displacing camps and collecting property, but at a slower pace, allowing some encampments to remain intact for months. Wednesday's new criteria comes after HUCIRP's received continuous complaints from neighbors who live near some of these longer-term camps, including an encampment of 30 or so tents that borders a section of Laurelhurst Park in Southeast Portland.

Earlier this month, representatives from each City Council office held a virtual meeting with people camping at the Laurelhurst site and activists with Stop the Sweeps, a houseless rights group that's been advocating for the the Laurelhurst campers' needs. The discussion was framed as a beginning of a conversation between unhoused Portlanders and city staff over the camp's future, but several campers left the meeting offended by the way the city had characterized the area they have called home.

"They were saying things about how unsanitary living outside is and how unsafe we are," an unhoused man named Morgan who attended the meeting told the Mercury last week. "They asked what we needed, but it didn't seem like they were listening to the answers."

Morgan said he would like to see the city invest in more frequent trash pickups at the encampment, and provide campers with showers and hand-washing stations with soap (the Laurelhurst station was frequently out of soap, Morgan claimed). These fixes could easily address the city's concerns raised about disease raised at the virtual meeting.

Those concerns seem front-and-center in HUCIRP's new protocols. In the Wednesday letter, HUCIRP's Hillier writes about the threat of Shigella or Hepatitis A posed by campsites located near raw sewage and the public health risks that come with other unidentified biohazards stemming from campsites.

Hillier said that posting a camp cleanup notice won't be HUCIRP's first step in trying to address campsites that violate the city's new guidelines.

"[HUCIRP] will continue doing everything it can prior to posting a campsite for removal to allow individuals to shelter in place," Hillier writes. That includes first sending garbage removal crews to help the campers take control of waste management problems, or dispatching outreach workers to offer referrals to shelters or social services, or visiting the camp to distribute "survival gear" for those sleeping outside.

"Following these activities," Hillier writes, "areas where the above issues continue to persist must be posted for full site removal."

What's missing, according to those camping near Laurelhurst, is guidance for where unhoused Portlanders are allowed to set up camp. Morgan and another houseless camper named William both told the Mercury that they'd be happy to relocate to a piece of property where the city has sanctioned their camping, similar to the three emergency alternative shelters the city opened in response to COVID.

"The city is already spending its money and time on the issue," said William. "But what are they doing to actually address this problem?"

All city bureaus are currently collecting data on all city-owned property that could be turned into a shelter or camping site for unhoused Portlanders, according to a joint statement published by City Commissioners Wednesday morning.

"Once complete, that inventory and these protocols will enable us to act more quickly and safely as future camps establish and grow," the joint statement reads. "We recognize the challenging work done by [HUCIRP] to respect individuals experiencing houselessness while also maintaining safe and hygienic conditions, and are extremely grateful for the thoughtfulness and compassion they bring to their work. We also wish to thank the housed and unhoused Portlanders whose thoughtful feedback helped us think through these issues."