Four unhoused Portlanders have filed a class action lawsuit against the City of Portland for discarding private property confiscated during city-sanctioned sweeps of homeless campsites. The lawsuit, filed Monday by local civil rights attorneys Michael Fuller and Juan Chavez, states it "does not seek to change Oregon’s laws on camping site sweeps – only to enforce them."
The city is currently beholden to the terms of a 2012 settlement agreement since dubbed the "Anderson Agreement", which requires the city to give unhoused Portlanders camping on city-owned land at least 48 hours notice before sweeping their campsite, and dictates 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," photograph each item, and store it in a facility for at least 30 days, during which people can retrieve their lost property.
All Portlanders named in the lawsuit describe scenarios where the city—operating through Rapid Response Bio Clean, the business it contracts with to clear campsites, and Portland Police Bureau (PPB) who assists in the clearing—did not adhere to these legally binding rules.
Steven Black, an unhoused plaintiff, described being awoken to PPB officers yelling outside his tent at NE 11th Ave. in spring 2020. After forcing Black to leave his tent, Rapid Response contractors collected all of Black's camping supplies—tent, sleeping bag, blankets—and other personal items. When Black visited the city's warehouse in Southeast Portland that stores swept items, a staffer told him someone had already claimed his property.
"Rapid Response taking all of his belongings made day-to-day life even harder for Mr. Black and caused him stress and sadness," the lawsuit reads. "He felt like he got robbed."
After months of sleeping outside unsheltered, Black eventually raised enough money collecting and depositing cans to buy a new tent, which he set up on the sidewalk bordering Laurelhurst Park's tennis courts. In November 2020, the city ordered another sweep of this encampment, and Rapid Response contractors again confiscated his tent, sleeping bag, and other possessions. When he tried to collect them at the warehouse, none of his property could be found. This repeat loss and trauma has Black, who remains unhoused, living in fear of yet again having his possessions taken by the City of Portland.
In a phone call with the Mercury, Black said the entire process felt discriminatory against homeless people.
"Rapid Response just takes your stuff and they don’t catalog it properly, and when you show up and it's not in storage, they're pretty much like 'Oh well, you're homeless so this is what happens,'" said Black. "If they take your stuff, you might as well just write it off. There needs to be more more accountability on their part."
Black's concerns echo those outlined in a city audit published in 2019, which found that Rapid Response Bio Clean appeared to be using arbitrary guidelines to determine which property was worth keeping.
“Without better guidance,” the audit read, “cleanup crews are left to decide what should be retained or thrown away.” The City Auditor's office provided an update on the recommendations included in that audit last year, and determined that the city had "resolved" previous problems with determining what items must be stored by the city and which items can be thrown out. The city now has a list of what cannot be stored online. Earlier this month, the City Auditor's office offered a second update, noting that the only remaining recommendations yet to be completed had to do with the online campsite reporting system.
The city renewed a contract with Rapid Response Bio Clean to conduct campsite cleanups in January.
Another plaintiff, Jennifer Bryant, described the experience of having her home swept four times in the past year. The lawsuit states that Bryant became homeless at the beginning of 2020, when the unsolved theft of her work truck effectively left her jobless. The city took numerous tents and an estimated thousands of dollars in clothing, critical work gear, and other personal possessions (including a laptop) from Bryant through its camp clearing process. Like Black, Bryant now lives in a constant state of anxiety.
"The sweeps not only set her back by having to constantly pay and work to replace the possessions that are taken and destroyed by Rapid Response," the lawsuit reads, "but the sweeps also prevent her and others from getting jobs because of the constant fear of being swept and having to stay with her possessions or lose them in a sweep, the loss of which has caused her to be unable to work the job and greater instability."
The city's Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP), which oversees campsite sweeps, have reduced the number of camp clearings during the pandemic by requiring campsites meet a certain level of risk before being targeted by a sweep. This new lawsuit drops five days after HUCIRP announced newly "assertive" protocols for sweeping homeless encampments during the pandemic, which gives the city more leeway to clear campsites.
Black told the Mercury he didn't understand why the city continued to disrupt homeless encampments during the pandemic.
"I figured that they wouldn't want us moving all over the place because of COVID, that it would be easier to leave us in one spot, in case there was an outbreak," said Black. "Sweeps put our safety at risk, it puts neighbors at risk. It doesn't help that people already fear us for thinking we're sick."
All four plaintiffs currently live on city property, placing them at risk of another destructive sweep.
The lawsuit accuses the city of violating plaintiffs' constitutional rights to property and against unlawful seizure and, by doing so, violating the city's Anderson Agreement. "The City has engaged in a pattern, practice, and custom of depriving individuals subject to their sweeps of houseless encampments of their property and liberty," the lawsuit claims. The suit also accuses the city of "vagueness" in regards to the way it enforces its camping laws, since the city offers unhoused Portlanders "no alternative solution for how to avoid having their property lost or destroyed."
Plaintiffs are not requesting anything from the city, aside from requiring city employees and its contractors adhere to its own policies regarding campsite sweeps. That is, all but one policy: The lawsuit asks the city to not enforce the city's latest protocol for increased sweeps announced last week "until it is no longer ambiguous, arbitrary, and unlawful."