No one heard the crash that killed Terrence Tombe early Sunday morning. According to those camped on the same strip of land where Tombe's rain-soaked tent stood, the nearby roar of I-205 traffic seemed to block out the sounds of a Honda sedan veering off the freeway's northbound exit ramp to SE Powell, tearing into the tent where Terrence and his cat slept, and crashing into a nearby tree shortly after 3 am.
"I didn't realize what had happened until the morning," said a neighboring camper who identified himself by the name "Country." "And he was gone."
Terrence, 27, died at the scene. His cat, Marshmallow, is still missing. The driver of the car, 20-year-old April Johnson, was arrested Monday on charges of negligent homicide, driving under the influence of intoxicants, and reckless driving. Terrence is the 63rd person in Portland to be killed by someone driving a car in 2021, making Portland's annual traffic fatality toll the highest in thirty years.
Country, who called Terrence "Shorty T", described him as a quiet man who kept to himself and requested space from other campers. He recalls Terrence setting up his tent near his own after being displaced during a recent city-sanctioned camp sweep from a nearby piece of land.
It's a familiar process for those living in and around the area where SE Powell intersects with I-205 and the I-205 bike path. Some unhoused campers wonder if the city's routine sweeps in the area force vulnerable campers to relocate to more dangerous places, like the patch of land where Terrence died.
"They move us around, over and over," said a man named Iggi, who lives in a tent just north of SE Powell. "It's stressful for us. And we end up living in unsafe areas."
Terrence's uncle, James Tombe, said that Terrence began living outside in July. This was the second time Terrence had experienced homelessness in Portland. Prior to July, Terrence had been living with his grandmother, but when she was unexpectedly forced to move into a smaller apartment, Terrence had to leave.
"I could see him getting anxious about it, the idea of being homeless again," James said. "He never liked it. And he didn’t like talking about it. He didn’t like to ask for help."
James, who said he considered himself a "father figure" to Terrence, remembers Terrence as "a kind and caring kid," who liked taking care of others. James said Terrence also had issues with anxiety, which were exacerbated by a learning disability. In the last year, James said Terrence had conquered addiction and had been speaking to James about "making a change and getting off the streets."
"I thought some day soon we’d have the opportunity to talk about it," said James, who would often let Terrence shower and do laundry at his home. "Now I won't get the chance."
The Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP) is the city program that responds to reports (largely submitted by the public) of homeless camps occupying public property. It's HUCIRP's responsibility to decide which encampments should be told to disperse, depending on environmental or public safety concerns tied to the camp. Per city policy, HUCIRP staff must give campers at least 48 hours' notice to clear their structures and property from the area before a contracted cleanup crew arrives to clear what remains of the campsite.
According to HUCIRP's website, the contracted cleanup crew Rapid Response cleared several locations near I-205 and SE Powell during the week of November 15. Rapid Response also came though and cleared camps in the area the first week of November. Iggi's campsite was included in that sweep. Iggi recalled being told by Rapid Response staff to simply move his tent to the other side of a sidewalk, just feet away from his original camp.
"After Rapid took a photo of the cleaned site and left, I just moved my things back," Iggi said. "It's so silly, it's a vicious cycle. But it's a reliable paycheck I guess."
Mark Alejos, a spokesperson for the city, said that HUCIRP does not instruct contractors who clear homeless camps to tell people where they can relocate outdoors.
"However, outreach crews often have conversations with people living in encampments about how to identify safe alternatives," said Alejos, pointing to shelters and transitional housing.
"We are far more effective in the work we do when we connect individuals with available services and outreach providers," said Alejos. "The fact that a man died living along the freeway last weekend is a heartbreaking and jarring reminder of how difficult this work is, and how vulnerable people are while living unsheltered."
Alejos said that outreach crews that work with HUCIRP were "very familiar" with Terrence, and said that he was "making progress while working to overcome the daily challenges that come with living unhoused."
The area surrounding SE Powell and I-205 has become a flashpoint for those both concerned and angry about homelessness in Portland. In August, a nearby Burgerville store on SE Powell and 92nd shuttered, citing public safety concerns linked to "the environment around the restaurant." Burgerville hired a private contractor to clear trash and tents off of their property in October, and then constructed a permanent fence to keep people from camping on open spaces owned by the restaurant chain. KingPins, a bowling alley located next door to Burgerville, has also put pressure on the city to sweep encampments near its location.
With that Burgerville location poised to reopen in coming months, campers are bracing for more notices to vacate.
James said he knows how the public can talk negatively of homeless people, and that he worried Terrence was the target of that vitriol for living outside.
"I wish people could just see homeless people as human beings," said James. "I want people to know that he had gotten through addiction and was trying to get off the streets. He just didn’t know how to get there."