A row of tents on SE Oak, on a block adjacent to Laurelhurst Park.
A row of tents on SE Oak, on a block adjacent to Laurelhurst Park. Alex Zielinski

After months of simmering tension regarding the growing houseless encampment at Southeast Portland's Laurelhurst Park, Portland City Council has approved a plan to evict campers by the end of the week.

Early Monday morning, staff with the city's Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP) posted notices at the camp—which occupies the sidewalks along SE Oak between SE 37th Ave and SE Cesar Chavez—warning campers of a pending eviction.

The notices give campers at least 72 hours to leave the area with their property before city contractors show up to remove it themselves. Per the city's campsite removal policy, any property that hasn't been claimed by a resident at that time will be bagged up and kept in a storage facility, where it can be retrieved by its owner for up to 30 days.

The encampment has long been the focus of neighborhood complaints to the city regarding trash pile-ups and alleged criminal activity near the camp. At the same time, residents at the camp have accused neighbors and other members of the public of regularly harassing and threatening them.

According to city staff, the decision to remove the camp this week stems from one incident in particular. On July 18, an employee of United Site Services, the city contractor that maintains two porta potties for those camping at Laurelhurst Park, observed "multiple firearms being drawn and their use threatened" by individuals residing at the camp. This encounter led United Site Services to decide to end their contract with the city, and immediately removed the porta potties they oversaw. Another contractor, Rapid Response Bio Clean, has agreed to step in and temporarily provide five new porta potties in the meantime.

In a joint letter published Monday morning, Portland city commissioners concluded: "The situation has devolved into something unsafe and unhealthy for everyone involved."

In an email sent to the city staff after the incident, United Site Services' Larry VanStiphout claimed that his employee had a gun pointed directly at him, but that allegation appears to be unfounded. According to a PPB log shared with the Mercury by city staff, an officer's "investigation found that the worker was not threatened directly, but rather witnessed (in close proximity) a subject point a gun towards another person in the camp. As this occurred, a third party emerged from an RV with what appeared to be an assault rifle to join the confrontation."

Another PPB log entry shows that, on July 22, several unhoused residents of the camp called PPB to "report abuse, threats, weapons possession, and assaults by another camp resident within the last 30 days." This assault included "the discharge of a firearm in a tent," per PPB's report. It's unclear if any arrests were made as a result.

Sophie Ross, 33, moved into the Laurelhurst camp after being evicted from her Beaverton apartment earlier this month. Ross, who’s been houseless on and off since the age of 18, said she’s never seen a firearm at the encampment—but she has heard fights break out.

“At times, I feel safe and comfortable here,” said Ross, who is transgender. “And at times, I feel really unsafe here. I’ve heard transphobic remarks being made by some people. And I witnessed a mobility-impaired senior woman be bullied out of camp—two people literally dragged her tent into the street. But there are allies in this community, too.”

Ross bought pepper spray shortly after moving to the camp, for self defense. She doesn’t yet know where she’ll move to avoid the pending sweep, and is hoping to find some fellow campers to relocate with together.

Joshua Peters, another Laurelhurst camper, also doesn’t know what his future holds. He hopes it includes moving into an actual house, a goal he’s had for several years. Peters said he investigated moving into St. John’s Village—a tiny home village for people transitioning out of homelessness—but the waiting list for a spot was discouragingly long. Peters has a van that needs mechanical assistance, but says the mechanics he’s offered to pay to fix it have all declined after realizing that Peters lives out of his van.

“It just seems like nobody wants to do anything for homeless people,” said Peters. “It’s like we’re contagious or something.”

Peters has heard mention among the Laurelhurst camp community about the city providing “support” for residents who need help—but he has yet to see that support offered on the ground.

“What I want to know is, where are all of the city’s millions of dollars going for the homeless?” Peters asked. “Is it just trash cleanup? To make the neighbors happy? I hear a lot of talk about this support but I don’t see anything that’s actually helping anybody.”

Peters also said he's never seen a gun at the Laurelhurst camp.

Stop the Sweeps, an organization that advocates for houseless Portlanders, has worked closely with Laurelhurst campers over the past months. Stop the Sweeps' Benjamin Donlon said he suspects that United Site Services fabricated the story about seeing firearms at the camp.

"This is not surprising but also surprising given the lies around the guns, the unverifiable nature of the reports and lack of actual witnesses other than a disgruntled vender and an angry neighbor," Donlon told the Mercury Monday.

This isn't the first time the city has forcibly evicted the campers at Laurelhurst Park. Campers first began setting up tents along the low-traffic section of SE Oak last summer, turning the street into a welcoming hub for those who weren't able to shelter indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite growing complaints from neighbors about the growing camp, HUCIRP decided against sweeping the area for months, instead adopting COVID-19 guidance introduced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that discouraged removing houseless encampments that posed a risk to public health or safety.

HUCIRP decided the camp had reached that risk level in early November, pointing to unsanitary trash build-up and crowded rows of tents along SE Oak, which separates the park's tennis courts from the duck pond. City contractors cleared the camp on November 19, a process that forced campers to temporarily relocate their tents to other public spaces in southeast Portland. But by early spring 2021, at least a dozen tents had repopulated the Laurelhurst Park site, attracting mutual aid groups that began serving regular meals and offering other amenities to residents. In the months since, city commissioners have focused their attention on addressing the growing camp—both by sending staffers to meet regularly with campers and their advocates and by clarifying the criteria that triggers a camp sweep to include areas near city parks.

According to City Hall staffers, city employees worked hard to help those camping at Laurelhurst to comply with the city's camping guidelines—whether that meant helping a person replace flat tire to move their car out of the street or handing out fliers about fire safety. But, as the summer wore on—per city commissioners' letter—staff "increasingly struggled to maintain public safety and health standards as the camp grew larger and demanded a greater and greater share of the city’s limited resources."

Commissioners say their staff and other outreach groups will be visiting the encampment over the next few days to help connect campers with support services—whether that's a spot in a homeless shelter or medical care. The Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), which oversees many of the city-county's shelters, will be reserving shelter beds specifically for Laurelhurst campers interested in relocating to a shelter.

City officials emphasized that all personal items not removed by campers before the coming sweep will be "diligently" inventoried, to make it easy for people to collect it later on. It's a noteworthy mention, as the City of Portland is currently facing a class action lawsuit for not properly retaining property taken from unhoused Portlanders during camp clearings.

Lou, a volunteer with the mutual aid group Defense Fund PDX, said they were afraid of what the coming camp sweep will do to vulnerable Laurelhurst campers.

"This community is so large, with so many different populations—including elderly and medically fragile people, and people with mental illnesses," said Lou, who asked the Mercury not publish their last name out of privacy concerns. "I’m worried about the sweep pushing people past their limit. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for someone who's finally found stability here to have it ripped away. This isn't going to solve the problem, this will just send people into a certain level of distress that will require a lot of care and resources from the city."

In their joint statement, commissioners admit that camp sweeps aren't the solution to Portland's homeless crisis.

"We recognize the challenging times we are in and that vulnerable populations have many historic and recent reasons to distrust government," they write. "As such, this decision was difficult to arrive at and is also not a solution. It is necessary at this moment to maximize public safety, but it is not a solution."

This story has been updated since it's initial publication to reflect the perspectives of those living at the Laurelhurst encampment