The City of Portland wants more say in who camps next to I-205, and who has to go. Oregon legislators might be ready to help out.
A bill that received a hearing before a legislative committee this morning could curb a disconnect that's long proved thorny in East Portland: the separate sets of rules by which the City of Portand and Oregon Department of Transportation clear out homeless camps. House Bill 4054 would do away with that by allowing ODOT to contract with the city to carry out its camp sweeps.
It's a move proponents—including the entire Portland city council—say would create more consistency. But some worry it will only result in increased sweeps, at a time when the city is clearing up more campsites than ever.
"Everybody knows that homelessness and homeless shelters and homeless camping is a problem that we need to deal with," state Sen. Rod Monroe, an East Portland legislator and one of the bill's chief sponsors, told members of the House Committee on Transportation Policy this morning. "The problem today is that you often have homeless camps that are set up on land that is controlled by ODOT."
Monroe tacked on a sentiment that many activists would disagree with: "The City of Portland has had a lot of experience moving homeless camps to places where they’re safe."
The disconnect between city and state policies for clearing homeless camps arises from different legal settlements that have been reached over the years, as homeless advocates have sued over camp cleanups. ODOT has entered into two separate settlements with the Oregon Law Center on the matter. The first required the agency to give at least 10 days' notice before clearing a homeless camp. The second provided an exception to that rule, stating ODOT could give just 24 hours' notice if it had already posted permanent "no trespassing" signs on the property.
The City of Portland has a single settlement, which dictates officials must give at least 24 hours' notice to campers before a sweep, and have to carry out a sweep within 7 days of posting.
That disagreement between the settlement agreements has led to regular communication between the city and state over how to tackle camping. The interplay between the two policies is most stark where the Springwater Corridor path meets the I-205 Multi-use Path in Southeast Portland. The Springwater, controlled by the city, has seen far less camping activity since a massive 2016 sweep under former Mayor Charlie Hales cleared out hundreds of campers. The I-205 path, controlled by ODOT, has seen more camping as a result—and become the latest focal point for East Portland residents tired of camping activity near their homes.
Under HB 4054, the rules set forth in ODOT's settlements would essentially be moot within city limits. The narrowly written bill allows (but does not require) ODOT to contract with Portland for cleanup services on its land—including storing people's possessions after a cleanup—and sets forth a minimum 48 hour notice before a camp is swept.
Depending on whether ODOT has posted "no trespassing" signs, that arrangement would either ensure campers are guaranteed more notice before a cleanup (48 hours instead of 24) or far less. It would also give more control to a city government that has ramped up its campsite cleanups under Mayor Ted Wheeler, including a swift crackdown on an organized homeless camp advocates attempted to create in Northeast Portland last week.
"The City of Portland has really worked hard to serve the homeless and they do have an expertise that they've developed," state Rep. Jeff Reardon, a Democrat whose district includes the Lents neighborhood and the bill's other chief sponsor, testified this morning. "This is not a sweeps bill."
At today's hearing, testimony was almost universally positive. A lobbyist for the Portland Business Alliance said her organization supports it. Lucas Hillier, a city employee who oversees the city's cleanup system, laid out the process by which the officials decide whether to force people to move or not—a sequence of events he says begins with an assessment of a camp to determine whether mere trash pickup will suffice. (That process doesn't appear to have been used when officials swept the nascent Village of Hope last week.) Marc Jolin, director of the county-city Joint Office of Homelessness Services praised the city's practice of posting weekly lists of its cleanups as "frankly unprecedented transparency."
Even groups that typically take officials to task for cleanups are reserving judgment. Both the Oregon Law Center and ACLU of Oregon have taken a neutral stance on the bill, though representatives from each group urged officials not to increase sweeps.
"Camps are one way that neighbors who are houseless can protect themselves and create some community," said the Oregon Law Center's Sybil Hebb. "We really hope that all their efforts will be focused around harm reduction. We hope that any policy that is implemented will have sweeps or removal as a very, very last resort."
ACLU of Oregon Policy Director Kimberly McCullough concurred, saying: " I know there was a comment about how this bill isn't about sweeps, but I would like to respectfully disagree. I’m a bit disappointed that we tend to focus on how we can do sweeps in a more humane manner, rather than focusing on how we can get beyond sweeps."
HB 4054 isn't currently scheduled for a vote in the transportation committee.