A tent sits empty Thursday morning, after its tenants packed up their belongings to relocate.
A tent sits empty Thursday morning, after its tenants packed up their belongings to relocate. Alex Zielinski

On Wednesday afternoon at Laurelhurst Park, two women shared cigarettes and paintbrushes as they spread globs of acrylic paint over stretched canvas frames. Mama Zeigh, a woman in her mid 60s with a grey-flecked mohawk, worked on an octopus painting, while Alma Barrett, a younger woman with a small white dog, painted a vibrant sky.

“This is how we find calm,” said Zeigh, who asked to be identified by her nickname. “We need something to bring us peace during all of… this,” said Zeigh, pointing her cigarette toward a neon green notice stapled to a nearby tree.

The sign told the women that their shared campsite, sandwiched between SE Oak St. and the sidewalk running along the street’s southern edge, is illegal. The green signs first appeared on the block, which is shared with at least 50 other campers, early Monday morning, alerting campers to news that their homes would be forcibly removed by the city as soon as Thursday.

As Barrett and Zeigh painted, some of their neighbors packed, shoving clothing into duffle bags and taking down tarps acting as makeshift walls. The women were planning on packing in the morning. For many who live along SE Oak and down neighboring 37th Ave., it’s a familiar practice: This is at least the third time Laurelhurst campers have been told to leave the area in the past year. In the past, campers have temporarily relocated, only to return to SE Oak once the city contractors hired to sweep homeless encampments leave.

It’s a cycle that pleases no one. Nearby housed neighbors have flooded City Hall inboxes with complaints about the perpetual camp, alleging the area fosters crime and health risks. Campers have asked the city to suggest an alternative place where they can legally camp, with many of them on years-long waiting lists for affordable housing. City officials have called the camp a “humanitarian crisis,” pointing to growing garbage piles and police reports of campers brandishing guns, while attempting to fast-track a plan to create sanctioned camping areas for unhoused Portlanders.

Barrett said the city’s sweeps of camps like Laurelhurst have become necessary in the absence of real alternatives to living outside.

“Trash piles up, and we need their help to manage it,” said Barrett, as she dabbed clouds of white paint onto her canvas. “It’s hard for a lot of people [here], but we don’t have any other option.”

Alma Barrett works on a painting at her Laurelhurst camp Wednesday.
Alma Barrett works on a painting at her Laurelhurst camp Wednesday. Alex Zielinski

Campers woke Thursday morning to a procession of white box trucks followed by Portland police cruisers driving down 37th Ave., triggering a shout from activists who had gathered onsite, “They’re here! It’s happening!”

After parking, staff with Rapid Response Bio-Clean, the waste removal business contracted by the city to administer homeless sweeps on public property, popped out of their trucks and snaked through the encampment, stopping to inform each camper of their arrival and intentions.

“We want to work with you and help you get what you need,” said one Rapid Response employee, speaking through a partially unzipped tent door to an individual inside. “We just need you to get going so we don’t have to store anything for you.”

Rapid Response is responsible for collecting all property during a sweep that is “recognizable as belonging to a person and that has apparent use.” Campsite items that are determined not to be personal property are thrown away. The collected property is then stored at a warehouse in Southeast Portland managed by the city’s Homelessness/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP). Individuals have 30 days to reclaim their property.

Rapid Response has faced criticism for its handling of property over the past years, with homeless Portlanders claiming the company has routinely lost or thrown away personal and valuable items collected during a sweep.

In May, several unhoused Portlanders filed a class action lawsuit against the city for allowing Rapid Response to lose their possessions during an earlier encampment sweep. On Wednesday, attorney Michael Fuller submitted paperwork indicating his intent to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Rapid Response. Fuller represents the family of Debby Ann Beaver, a woman who died in 2019 shortly after her Southeast Portland camp was cleared by Rapid Response. Beaver’s family believes she died because Rapid Response staff confiscated her medication for diabetes and high blood pressure during their camp sweep.

Fuller said he had hoped his legal paperwork filed Wednesday—which appointed a lawyer to represent Beaver’s estate in the eventual wrongful death case—would stop Thursday’s sweep.

“My hope was that it would deter them,” Fuller told the Mercury Thursday. “It didn’t do that, but what it did do was put them on notice. They know that if property, like medication, is wrongfully swept, there will be legal consequences.”

Rapid Response employees removed trash from the SE Oak encampment Thursday morning.
Rapid Response employees removed trash from the SE Oak encampment Thursday morning. Alex Zielinski

As Rapid Response crews walked through Laurelhurst Thursday, they took copious photos of each campsite, presumably a tool to help remember which items were collected from which site. The class action lawsuit against the city accuses Rapid Response of not following its own protocols for photographing and recording each item collected during a sweep. With legal observers with the ACLU and Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) on site, Rapid Response staff appeared eager to heavily document campers’ belongings.

Staff gave campers an hour’s warning to pack up before officers with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) closed off sections of the encampment to residents with police tape. Officers said the closure was to allow Rapid Response staff to clear the space undisturbed.

The police tape attracted a small group of activists who admonished officers for supporting the sweep and shouted familiar cries of “all cops are bastards.” One individual was arrested by PPB on criminal trespass charges for crossing the police tape. No other arrests were made during the sweep, according to PPB.

In the past, activists have staged blockades during homeless camp sweeps, attempting to keep the cleaning crews from evicting campers. On Thursday, activists with Stop the Sweeps PDX, Defense Fund PDX, and other mutual aid groups mostly helped campers pack up their belongings and offered rides to people seeking to relocate.

“We’re here to help the residents do as they choose,” said Benjamin Donlon with Stop the Sweeps PDX. “Whatever that may be.”

City employees with the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) were also on the ground Tuesday to help campers with vehicle trouble. Wearing bright blue polos, PBOT staff distributed cans of gas and car batteries to those in need.

While no city commissioners were on site for the sweep, several of their staff came to observe the process and offer help. Margaux Weeke, communications strategist for City Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office, was one of them. Weeke reflected on the process Friday morning.

“Our office believes that—despite the tragic nature of the circumstances—the intervention at the camp near Laurelhurst Park went remarkably well yesterday,” said Weeke. “We witnessed an outpouring of support from mutual aid groups that listened to and prioritized the needs of Portlanders experiencing houselessness.”

Donlon said he has appreciated City Hall’s cooperation with activist groups and campers in recent months, but wishes they could have done more to actively improve the lives of people living unsheltered.

“If the amount of money spent on cleanups could go into the hands of the people they’re sweeping, then they’d never have to do this again,” he said. “But it’s not about making money for the city, it’s about control.”

Officers with PPB close off a section of SE 37th Ave. to allow cleaning crews to work undisturbed.
Officers with PPB close off a section of SE 37th Ave. to allow cleaning crews to work undisturbed. Alex Zielinski

Some residents were noticeably overwhelmed by the day’s task.

Kelli Harvey, who’s camped at Laurelhurst for more than a year, didn’t start packing up her belongings until after Rapid Response appeared Thursday.

“I should have started cleaning up yesterday,” said Harvey, who uses a walker to get around. “But this kind of thing… it puts me in a state of shock, a little. It makes small tasks seem really impossible.”

Harvey recalled the last time Rapid Response cleared Laurelhurst, in November 2020.

“I was in bed for at least two days straight after,” she said. “It just takes it all out of you. It’s a big setback.”

Mark Usher, one of the homeless Portlanders signed on to the class action suit against the city, has lived in the Laurelhurst encampment for several months. On Thursday morning, he packed his tent and belongings into a volunteer’s truck and relocated. He’s not planning on going far.

“It’s routine, for me,” said Usher. “Last time [Rapid Response] came through, I was setting my tent back up here the next day.”

By early afternoon, many Laurelhurst campers had relocated to the sidewalk bordering Sunnyside School Park on SE Yamhill St. and 34th, a location that became a temporary hub for unhoused Portlanders last time the Laurelhurst camp was swept.

Rapid Response had effectively razed the Laurelhurst encampment by 5 pm Thursday.

“Thing is, everyone is going to be right back here in no time,” said Usher, with a shrug.

Usher said he’d prefer to be living in a house or apartment, but can’t afford the cost of rent in Portland. He hasn’t been successful with programs that help unhoused people transition into permanent housing. This week, he’s planning on helping build tiny homes for Beacon Village, a new tiny home village located at the Bridgeport United Church of Christ in the Montavilla neighborhood.

“They say if you help build, you can stay at the village,” said Usher. “I was going to go this morning, but then the sweep came. I hope there’s still an open spot for me.”

Rapid Response Bio-Clean trucks line SE 37th Ave. Thursday morning.
Rapid Response Bio-Clean trucks line SE 37th Ave. Thursday morning. Alex Zielinski

Earlier in the week, staff with Cascadia Behavioral Health, Transition Projects, and Central City Concern stopped by the camp to offer residents spaces at shelters and short-term motel vouchers, and sign them up on waiting lists for permanent housing.

The city had secured 40 shelter beds for Laurelhurst encampment residents. The city has reported that eight Laurelhurst campers had made shelter reservations. Yet, as of Thursday evening, none of those campers had arrived at the shelters.

The city also helped six campers apply for a tiny home at one of the city-run C3PO villages. It's not clear how long it takes for those applications to be processed, or if there are spaces available for new residents.

A total of 19 Laurelhurst campers were given motel vouchers by Cascadia Behavioral Health. According to the city, two camp residents were taken to the hospital, and will have motel rooms waiting for them on their release.

In a joint statement on the week’s pending eviction shared Monday, city commissioners said their forthcoming plan to create six sanctioned campsites for homeless Portlanders, dubbed “Safe Rest Villages,” could serve as another resource for people threatened by sweeps in the future.

Several Laurelhurst campers expressed interest in this model.

On Wednesday, Zeigh said her ideal living situation would be an outdoor community of tents, surrounded by plywood walls that wouldn’t be constantly threatened by eviction. The walls would keep the public from ogling, Zeigh explained. Zeigh said she’s grown frustrated by the number of people who drive by and use their phones to take photos of her and the encampment. She’s been told the photos are often posted on social media apps like Nextdoor, accompanied by disparaging comments. They also end up in city commissioners’ inboxes.

“They don’t say anything... just stare, like we’re not people, just like them,” Zeigh said. “I can’t take it anymore.”

On Thursday, Zeigh and Barrett accepted volunteers’ help picking up and packing items at their camp. Barrett said she believed the public’s attention on the camp sweep made the whole process more “traumatic” for campers, including herself.

“This could be so much easier,” said Barrett, taking a break during the Thursday move.

Hours later, Barrett and Zeigh’s outdoor art studio was leveled, with just a dry strip of yellowing grass and a paint-flecked sidewalk left in its place. Nearby, a hand painted cardboard sign rested against a tree, reading, “Be back soon.”