It’s been two weeks since Joshua Peters first set up his tent on a sidewalk along SE Oak, nestled between Laurelhurst Park’s athletic fields and lakeside trails. Peters and his two dogs joined a long line of tents stretching between Cesar Chavez Blvd. and SE 35th, bookended by porta-potties and handwashing stations.
“It’s not an ideal situation,” said Peters, who has been trying to get into permanent housing. “But I have friends I trust here, and I feel less vulnerable than camping somewhere just by myself.”
But on Monday night, Peters began breaking down his tent. He had learned that, after continuous complaints about trash and drug use from housed neighbors, the City of Portland was planning to remove the entire encampment of an estimated 75 people in the next few days.
“It’s not surprising, the neighborhood groups always win in these situations,” said Peters, who has been homeless in Portland since 2016. “But that means I need to find another place to go, and I probably won’t be welcome there either.”
On Tuesday morning, a group of 50 met outside the encampment to protest the pending removal, or “sweep,” waving signs reading “Stop the Sweeps” and “Sheltering in Place” at passing cars. The group initially expected city workers to arrive Monday morning to clear the campsites, but were informed by the city that the action was going to be delayed a day or two.
Jamila Osman, an organizer with homeless advocacy group Free Hot Soup, told the crowd Monday that the decision to force people to relocate amid a global pandemic and during Portland’s coldest months, “is cruel and inhumane.”
“The city’s efforts to tackle homelessness has always put the city’s image… ahead of the needs of people sleeping on the streets,” said Osman. “City officials will talk until they’re blue in the face about solving the crisis on our streets, and then make decisions that exacerbate and worsen that crisis.”
Homeless advocacy groups plan on returning to Laurelhurst Park every morning this week to be present when city contractors arrive to clear the encampment.
“We stand firmly with the houseless community… we recognize housing is a human right,” Osman said. “And we shall not be moved.”
Portland has paused most campsite removals during the COVID-19 pandemic, following guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help people to safely shelter in place if housing isn’t available. According to the city’s Homelessness/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP), the only encampments “where movement might be required are those that pose a significant public health and safety risk.”
HUCIRP said that the planned removal comes after nine months of meeting with campers and trying to connect them to housing or needed inpatient health treatment. But, it’s ultimately the public health violations that spurred the planned campsite clearing.
Heather Hafer, a spokesperson for HUCIRP, said that campers had failed to adhere to CDC rules for encampments during COVID-19, after many reminders from city staff. Those rules include limiting campsites to seven structures, allowing six feet of distance between structures, and keeping space around the campsite clean from garbage or debris. Hafer said the SE Oak encampment violated these rules, and also had attracted dangerous activity.
According to the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), officers have recovered 20 stolen vehicles from the street adjacent to the campsite between July 1 and November 10—a 100 percent increase from the same time period in 2019. In an email to the Mercury, PPB Sergeant Matthew Jacobson added that an individual living at the camp had been arrested for stealing $10,000 in property from a storage pod located in a neighbor’s driveway.
Peters acknowledged that crime is an issue at the encampment.
“People that are homeless, a lot of them use drugs,” he said. “And they will do whatever they do to get their drugs. That’s a hard place to be in. For me, that just means I can’t leave valuable things in my tent.”
But, Peter adds, it’s the abuse from housed neighbors—living in one of Portland’s wealthiest neighborhoods— that is more damaging. He says housed neighbors regularly take photos and yell degrading sentiments at him and his fellow campers, and some have vandalized the camp.
The tension between housed Laurelhurst residents and houseless campers is also being felt in other neighborhoods across Portland during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without city staff regularly forcing encampments to relocate, some people who don’t want to share their neighborhood with homeless Portlanders have instead turned to vandalizing property and threatening people who live outside.
In records obtained but the Mercury, HUCIRP staff describe incidents based in the Foster-Powell neighborhood in which property owners repeatedly stole, knocked over, burned, or locked city-owned porta-potties placed in their neighborhoods to accommodate nearby homeless residents during the pandemic. One man used a knife to cut a switch off of a truck carrying a porta-potty to effectively keep a city contractor from lowering the toilet to the ground and placing it near the man’s house.
In another email sent to HUCIRP, a member of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association blames the SE Oak encampment for the “fecal matter” and syringe he found in the Laurelhurst Park playground. “When you have replied to our repeated complaints and pleas for help, you cite this concern for the homeless,” he writes. “Why are you not concerned for us?”
Advocates for the homeless community say the city’s reasons for clearing the Laurelhurst campsite aren’t enough to displace dozens of people who have no housing alternatives. Pat Schwiebert has provided free hot meals to homeless residents of Southeast Portland for decades—originally in the basement of Sunnyside United Methodist Church, and more recently in Laurelhurst Park. Schwiebert said that the community these encampments provide are critical to the health and safety of their residents, especially during COVID-19.
“They know how to take care of each other,” said Schwiebert, who attended the Tuesday rally. “This isn’t a perfect place for them to live, but there is no perfect place for them to shelter in place right now."
Schwiebert has also been harassed by neighbors for feeding people in the park. One email sent by a Laurelhurst resident to the city blames the free meal program for producing a “traffic jam” in the park, and attracting too many homeless people—and rats.
HUCIRP said the city intentionally timed this week’s campsite removal along SE Oak to coincide with the opening of a new homeless shelter at Mt. Scott Community Center. But many individuals don’t feel comfortable or safe staying in shelters, and feel more protected in a self-regulated campsite.
Schweibert and others believe the city should instead create more sanctioned places where homeless Portlanders are allowed to set up a tent, at least for the duration of COVID-19 pandemic. She pointed to the three city-run temporary outdoor shelters as an effective example. These shelters are, essentially, fenced-in parking lots containing 45 tents on wooden platforms, each equipped with new sleeping bags, and spaced 10 feet apart from each other. Residents have access to meals, showers, and restrooms. In total, these sites only accommodate 135 people.
“I’d like more uniformed areas where we know we can camp, maybe taped off or something,” said Dale Callicrate, another resident of the SE Oak encampment. Callicrate, who’s been homeless since 2013, said he does his part to keep the area around his tent clean, but can’t be responsible for other peoples’ messes.
During a post-election press conference Wednesday, Mayor Ted Wheeler told reporters that he’s interested in expanding the city’s outdoor shelter spaces to accommodate for the city’s unhoused population. It’s not immediately clear how those spaces would be funded. On Monday, Wheeler told the Mercury that he’s already in talks with the transition team for President-Elect Joe Biden regarding increased federal funding for housing and homeless response programs.
In the meantime, campers at Laurelhurst Park are preparing for another move. On Tuesday, volunteers handed out hot cups of coffee and doughnuts to campers who had begun packing up their property. Sipping from a paper cup, Callicrate said activist groups’ support is heartening for a community that’s used to being scorned by members of the public.
“I think the sweep would have happened this morning if it wasn’t for these people,” Callicrate said, nodding toward the protest organizers. “It’s really nice of them to care.”