A decision to renew a contract with a company that carries out homeless camp cleanups for the City of Portland has sparked a divide within City Hall.
Rapid Response Bio Clean, a company that cleans up everything from murder scenes to hoarder homes, has been one of the two companies hired by the city to clean up homeless campsites erected on public property (and hold salvageable items in an accessible storage facility) for nearly five years. On December 18, Portland City Council was poised to approve a five-year contract expanding Rapid Response's scope of work and granting the company an annual $4,528,000 stipend.
Shortly before the morning council session began, however, this decision was pulled from the council agenda by Mayor Ted Wheeler. According to Wheeler spokesperson Tim Becker, the mayor was concerned the day's packed council schedule wouldn't allow for enough time discuss the contract.
"The council had an overloaded agenda and we wanted to ensure there will be a thorough presentation so the item gets the full council consideration it deserves," said Becker in an email to the Mercury.
But the decision comes in the midst of a debate over the role Rapid Response should play in the city's extensive camp cleanups.
The new contract, buoyed by $2 million from the Oregon Department of Transportation, doesn't just expect Rapid Response employees to clean up personal property and trash from these campsites. The staff is also required to complete training on de-escalation techniques and how to administer naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses. And, during Portland's extremely cold days, Rapid Response staff are expected to work as homeless outreach staff—distributing handwarmers and blankets to campers and encouraging them to move into a warm shelter.
Kaia Sand, director of homeless advocacy and media group Street Roots, doesn't believe Rapid Response is an appropriate agency for that job.
"If the city needs biohazards removed, this makes sense," she says. "But we can't be asking biohazard cleanup folks to do frontline outreach work. The city says this is the best system they got. But I say, if the system is broken—we go after the system."
Sand wants to see a six-month delay on the council vote, allowing city officials to reconsider the entire cleanup program.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty shares Sands' concerns. While a member of Hardesty's staff sat on the committee that selected Rapid Response to be the city's cleanup contractor in early September, the commissioner does not support the company being involved in every step of the cleanup process.
According Hardesty's office, the commissioner would like to see the responsibilities that are included in the contract split between several different contractors that offer more specific expertise.
"Here is where I stand:" wrote Hardesty in an email sent to media. "I understand the trauma that comes from sweeps. I have heard the stories of how these actions affect the mental, physical and emotional well-being of houseless individuals. With that understanding I am not supportive of the way the current contract is laid out. It is too large and onerous a task to ask one group to provide services; including engaging with houseless community members, moving and storing their property, and cleaning up biowaste."
The homeless cleanup program was created in 2014 in response to a lawsuit accusing the City of Portland of unconstitutionally barring houseless people from sleeping in public spaces. The settlement agreement reached after this lawsuit laid out strict rules for the city to follow when cleaning up homeless encampments on public property.
Now enshrined as city policy, those rules mandate that city employees must give people at least 48 hours’ notice before sweeping their campsite and that, if people don’t clear the area before the cleanup crew arrives, the city must collect all property that is “recognizable as belonging to a person and that has apparent use.” That property is then stored in a contractor-operated warehouse, where individuals have 30 days to reclaim their property.
Since the program's creation, homeless Portlanders have raised concerns about items—including medications, money, and family heirlooms—lost during these cleanups. Sand has joined a group of homeless advocacy groups—including Right 2 Survive, Sisters of the Road, and WRAP—in calling on the city to re-examine the entire system.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court let stand a lower court's decision that struck down a Boise law allowing police to give homeless people tickets for sleeping or camping in public spaces.
"With the Boise decision out there, it seems strange for the city to put so much money into this system," says Sand. She adds that, if council follows through with approving the Rapid Response contract, she wouldn't be surprised if the city faced new legal action.
This afternoon, a coalition of houseless Portlanders and advocates called Stop the Sweeps PDX will hold a press conference in front of City Hall demanding a moratorium on all campsite cleanups conducted by the city.
"We believe people should be able to rest and to survive in public spaces without harassment from the city, as represented by the police, private contractors, and service workers," reads a press release for the event. "The interests of the business community should not outweigh the needs of actual people."