Homeless advocates met outside of Portland City Hall yesterday to protest camp sweeps.
Homeless advocates met outside of Portland City Hall yesterday to protest camp sweeps.

Homeless Portlanders and advocates kicked off a campaign yesterday that calls on the city to halt its practice of routinely tearing down homeless encampments.

“Camp sweeps are a problem in that they give the public the perception that homeless people are all worthless,” said Jeff Liddicoat, a homeless Portlander who spoke at an afternoon press conference outside of City Hall. Liddicoat and others said the city’s cleanups—in which all personal property is taken and temporarily stored in a city-run warehouse—only exacerbate Portlanders’ inability to find stable housing.

“But, if we can reflect on basic values,” he said, “things have a chance of changing. We have the ability to come together as a community and find something akin to consensus.”

The campaign, called Stop the Sweeps PDX, asks city officials to attend a series of public hearings where homeless people can share the negative impact these cleanups have had on their lives. Supported by local homeless organizations like Sisters of the Road, Street Roots, and Right 2 Survive, the campaign also requests a moratorium on all camp cleanups in the City of Portland.

Mayor Ted Wheeler responded to the group’s requests during a Friday press conference.

“While it is illegal to erect tents in public right-of-ways, we do not randomly go out and harass or remove people camping on the streets,” said Wheeler.

The City of Portland, which is alerted to encampments through an online reporting system, is legally obligated to give campers a 48-hour heads up before they clear a homeless camp. Since 2014, the city has relied on outside contractors to carry out nearly 8,000 camp cleanups.

“The whole reason we have this contract is so that we are thoughtful and compassionate about how we prioritize cleanups of camps,” Wheeler said. “They are prioritized based on public safety, on environmental hazards, on public health hazards.”

Wheeler said that in the new year, Portland City Council is expected to vote to approve a new, more “compassionate” contract with a biohazard company to continue orchestrating the city cleanups.

“I believe the city council will be impressed by the changes made,” he said, stressing the importance of public engagement before the vote.

Yesterday, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty told the Mercury that she doesn’t support the proposed contract—as it puts too much responsibility on a single company.

Wheeler acknowledged a December 16 decision by the US Supreme Court to uphold a lower court’s ruling, which barred the City of Boise from ticketing people camping in public spaces.

“It’s my understanding that that ruling very narrowly addresses issuing citations for camping,” Wheeler said. “So, there is a question to what degree, if any, [Portland] issues citations for camping.”

Wheeler says he won’t be sure how the ruling will impact Portland’s cleanup process until the city attorney is through reviewing it.

At the Thursday campaign kick-off, homeless advocate Rachelle Dixon said she’s seeing a “lack of will” from elected officials—especially those like Wheeler, who are running for reelection in 2020—on repairing the trauma brought by homeless camp sweeps.

“Promise me that you’ll do one thing,” said Dixon, who also serves as the vice-chair of the Multnomah County Democrats. “Ask any and every elected official, ‘How do [you] feel about sweeps?’ and 'What are [you] doing about the housing problems?' And if they can’t give you a good, satisfactory answer, let them know you will not be voting for them.”