“Photos of my babies. My wallet. A really warm blanket.”
Kat Fry has lost track of how many things she’s had taken from her while living on the streets of Portland.
“It’s stressful to try to think about what I’ve lost,” she says. “I go to look for something and remember: ‘That’s right, it’s gone. They took it.’”
Some of Fry’s possessions have been stolen. Others have been trashed by tenants of the buildings near her tent in Old Town. But most of her lost property has been taken by the City of Portland.
After a recent trip to the emergency room for a spider bite, Fry returned to the street where she’d been sleeping to find her brand-new tent and sleeping bag had disappeared—plucked from the sidewalk by one of the city’s campsite cleanup crews while she was in the hospital. Fry’s backpack, which contained her prescription pain medication, was also gone.
When Fry went to the warehouse where the city holds property collected during campsite cleanups, she found her backpack was “clean empty.” Her doctor, knowing Fry had a history of substance abuse, wouldn’t refill the prescription. At the time, Fry had been clean from narcotics for several weeks.
Two weeks after her pain medication had gone missing, Fry’s friend handed her a syringe. “He said, ‘Here!’” Fry says. “It was the only thing I could grab. I had no other options. What was I supposed to do?”
Fry is one of the hundreds of Portlanders who’ve lost important personal property during the city’s frequent homeless camp sweeps, which regularly affect all campsites on public property. Carried out by private firms contracted by the city, the often-unpredictable cleanups have contributed to a cycle of loss that, for many living outside, delays any pursuit of a stable life.
While the city has attempted to make it easier for homeless Portlanders to reclaim their property, many argue that the stress the cleanups inflict on Portland’s homeless population won’t truly be resolved until the sweeps come to an end. According to both homeless individuals and many of their advocates—some of whom are working to build a movement to “stop the sweeps”—the city seems to be using seized property to punish homeless Portlanders for falling victim to the region’s housing crisis.
“The emotional impact... it almost feels intentional,” says Alexa Simpson, a Portlander who’s been homeless for three years. “It’s like they’re beating us down again and again until we leave town, or we die.”
Ironically, some of the rules that mandate the campsite cleanups were created to protect the rights of homeless Portlanders.
In 2008, a group of Portlanders who’d been arrested for camping in public areas sued the City of Portland for violating their constitutional protections against “cruel and unusual punishment,” arguing that they had nowhere else to sleep. Four years later, the city reached a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs that laid out strict rules for the city to follow when cleaning up homeless encampments on public property—campsites that, however common, remain illegal in Portland.
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 at a 5,500-square-foot warehouse in Southeast Portland managed by the city’s Homelessness/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP). Individuals have 30 days to reclaim their property.
The city is alerted to homeless camps on public property through One Point of Contact—a website where Portlanders can report people breaking the city’s anti-camping rules—and from direct referrals from law enforcement or city employees.
In 2014, faced with a steadily growing homeless population, the city decided to hire an outside security firm, Pacific Patrol Services, to conduct camp cleanups. The city has since added a secondary contractor, the hazardous waste removal company Rapid Response Bio Clean, to address the consistently growing number of homeless encampments.
By June 2019, these contractors—overseen by HUCIRP—were cleaning up nearly 3,000 campsites a year, with each cleanup costing taxpayers an average of $762. According to the city, HUCIRP currently receives between 700 and 1,200 reports of illegal camping each week from members of the public.
The rapidly rising number of homeless campsites—and the cleanups that accompany them—has had consequences. Last March, a city audit found that the demand for cleanup services “has pushed the program past its capacity.” One of the auditor’s top concerns was that contractors 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.”
While HUCIRP has a list of items that contractors are instructed not to keep during cleanups—including grocery carts, food, drug paraphernalia, hazardous material, water-logged items, and anything soiled with human waste—several people told the Mercury that they’ve seen contractors throw away items that should have been taken to the storage facility, such as bicycles, wheelchairs, personal identification, and insurance documents. Others say they’ve lost personal items with sentimental value—including family photos, letters, and even ashes of deceased family members—because contractors either decided or assumed they were garbage.
“If they decide an item has no value, it’s gone,” says Barbra Weber, a homeless Portlander and community activist. “It’s devastating.”
Kim Mason, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Oregon, said the lack of clarity around what’s “recognizable as belonging to a person and that has apparent use” leaves people with little legal recourse when their property is taken.
“There are due process concerns in the city interfering with people’s property rights,” Mason wrote in an email to the Mercury. “Especially when ‘property’ can be classified as trash, even though it is life-sustaining to its owner.”
Inconsistent enforcement of rules also plagues other steps in the camp cleanup process.
The city is legally obligated to alert people of a coming cleanup by posting a sign near their campsite at least 48 hours before a sweep. But Simpson says those signs are regularly torn down by upset campers or people trying to sabotage campsites, leaving campers unprepared for a sweep. Numerous times, Simpson says, she’s woken up to contractors in the process of tearing down her camp.
“I’ve seen my possessions put in a dumpster... and I was almost arrested when I tried to pull them out,” she says. “Once they told us that we could only keep whatever items we could carry that was in arms’ reach. That can’t be right.”
Those overseeing campsite cleanups can also give campers contradictory information. Weber said she’s been told by a police officer that she had an hour to clean up her camp, only to be told by a contractor 15 minutes later that she had to leave immediately.
“There’s no uniformity to the system,” says Weber.
Since the city can’t always promise shelter for campers, let alone a path toward permanent affordable housing, many people who’ve had their campsites cleared just move their tent to another public space—starting the cycle over again.
Those attempting to retrieve belongings that have been relocated to the storage facility often face another set of challenges.
After a cleanup, the items that contractors consider worth keeping are taken to a warehouse at Southeast Ivon and 4th, where they are photographed and placed in clear plastic bags that are identified with a tag that lists the items inside and notes the location of where they were picked up. Those bags are stored on rows of industrial shelves, categorized by the date they were brought in.
If someone wants to retrieve their confiscated property, they must call the city and schedule a set time to visit the warehouse, which is open on weekdays between 10 am and 4 pm and operated by the same contractors who conduct the cleanups. On arrival, staffers ask visitors where their camp was located and to describe their property.
“It’s degrading to have to remember everything you had in detail,” says Fry. “Then you give a description of everything, and they may give you a third of it or a fourth of it. Once I got my wallet back, but all my cash was missing.”
There are many reasons that some people are unable to visit the warehouse in that 30-day window: maybe their cell phone was taken during a cleanup, so they can’t call to make an appointment; maybe their day job won’t let them take the time off; maybe their bus pass was in their confiscated wallet.
According to HUCIRP, the vast majority of stored property is never picked up. After 30 days in the warehouse, most items are thrown away.
For many, this process—one that was initially meant to restore dignity to a vulnerable population—only exacerbates their instability.
One homeless Portlander, who goes by the name Starburst, says she’s had library books taken during a cleanup of her Eastside camp, a loss she says has prohibited her from using Multnomah County Library’s services.
“It seems like a small problem to have,” says Starburst, who’s been homeless for nearly a decade. “But [the library] is something I really rely on.”
Others who’ve experienced unexpected camp cleanups tell stories of losing Social Security cards, insurance documents, cell phones, and food that had been purchased with a state-issued Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program card. Losing such items can be an immeasurable setback for those attempting to escape homelessness.
“People are having the only stuff they own ripped away from them [by] law enforcement and city employees—people they are supposed to trust. You lose sight of who you can trust. You end up resenting the government and anyone who tells you they want to help.”
—Alexa Simpson, houseless Portlander
Simpson says her mother, who is homeless and disabled, has repeatedly had her pain medication taken during cleanups. To refill the lost prescriptions, her mother has to submit a report to the Oregon Health Authority, which can then approve or deny the request. While her mother has never been denied a refill, the frequent requests have strained her relationship with her insurance provider, doctors, and pharmacy.
“They look at her like she’s irresponsible, or a liar,” says Simpson. “It makes her anxious to interact with them.”
Unsurprisingly, property loss has driven yet another wedge between the homeless community and Portland officials.
“People are having the only stuff they own ripped away from them [by] law enforcement and city employees—people they are supposed to trust,” says Simpson. “You lose sight of who you can trust. You end up resenting the government and anyone who tells you they want to help.”
The city staff who are most familiar with this system aren’t blind to its flaws.
“The city does not want to take anyone’s personal property,” HUCIRP spokesperson Heather Hafer said in an email to the Mercury. “We want people to be able to keep their things, and collecting property is a time-consuming and costly process.”
In the past year, HUCIRP staff have made substantial changes to the program. In early 2019, the city started keeping confiscated property in a warehouse that’s larger and more centrally located than the original location where items were stored. That alone, the city says, has caused property retrieval rates to quadruple.
Staff have also worked to more specifically outline the ways contractors are expected to interact with campers.
The city’s cleanup contractors currently adhere to a 2016 contract that, among other things, requires them to be trained in the handling and disposing of hazardous waste. “Contractor(s)... shall perform work in a timely and efficient manner, and conduct themselves in a courteous and business-like fashion,” the contract reads. Once a cleanup has begun, the contract grants campers one hour to “remove their possessions and leave the site.”
An updated contract currently under consideration asks for contractors that employ staff who have been trained by the Crisis Prevention Institute, an organization that specializes in de-escalation training. It also requires employees “be trained and experienced in... non-violent conflict resolution, assertive engagement, [and] trauma informed communication,” along with hazardous waste disposal.
Unlike its 2016 predecessor, this updated proposal requires that staff “be polite, diplomatic and professional at all times, and treat all persons with dignity and respect.” While campers will be given “at least” one hour to remove their possessions and leave their campsite, the proposal also offers an addendum: “In instances where individuals are making a good-faith effort to collect their property but are unable to do so within an hour... it may be appropriate to move onto another location and come back later in the day.”
The new contract language still needs City Council’s approval, but Hafer expects it to go into effect for current and future contractors by January 2020.
But for houseless Portlanders, the fact that campsite cleanups could become more humane and that property retrieval has been made more accessible are only Band-Aid solutions. Neither change addresses the primary issue: the city’s lack of affordable housing.
“The city should respond to the lived experiences of the houseless and their requests for support,” says the ACLU’s Mason. “Adequate housing is the most obvious step.”
In lieu of that, Mason says, the city should at least allow people a space to camp and “exist safely and legally.”
It’s a suggestion that HUCIRP staff are exploring. The program’s 2019-2021 strategic plan mentions a department goal of finding “underutilized city properties, or properties in pre-development stages, that could be used for alternative shelter purposes to provide lawful and organized places for people experiencing homelessness to sleep.”
Homeless advocates are hoping to take that a step further. A new coalition made up of homeless community members and local advocacy groups has created an information campaign about the impact sweeps have on Portlanders—and is working to request a citywide moratorium on camp sweeps.
The coalition, led by members of Sisters of the Road, Right 2 Survive, and the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP), brought the proposal to the Multnomah County Democrats in November, asking for their support. Not only did the group pass a resolution calling for a moratorium on camp sweeps, but the county Democrats pledged to meet with local and state leaders to demand the suspension.
Portland has attempted to halt camp sweeps on public property before, most notably in 2016, under then-mayor Charlie Hales’ “safe sleep” policy. But—faced with mounting lawsuits from business groups and neighborhood associations—the city’s moratorium only lasted six months.
Until the camp cleanups halt, the local coalition is devoted to lessening the sweeps’ impact on vulnerable Portlanders. At the moment, that means offering to accompany people to HUCIRP’s warehouse to help them navigate the property retrieval process and creating a system to provide emergency supplies to people who’ve lost their property in a cleanup.
WRAP Executive Director Paul Boden has followed Portland’s many attempts to soften the blow of city policies that disproportionately target the homeless community. Boden, who experienced homelessness as a teenager, says the city’s cleanup system is a clear example of anti-homeless policymaking.
“If somebody came into your house when you were at work and threw out your personal possessions, you’d get pretty freaking upset,” Boden says. “How’s that any different from a sweep? There isn’t a difference in attachment to personal belongings between a housed person and an unhoused person. They aren’t a different species.”
Boden says the “other-ing” of the homeless population makes it easier to violate—both practically and legally—certain groups’ basic human rights.
“As soon as you don’t have permanent housing, you’re seen as different,” Boden says. “Your rights are different. We tell [houseless people], ‘If we let you maintain your personal possessions, it’s an inconvenience to us.’”
Legally speaking, if someone has their property thrown away during a cleanup, they can sue the city or contractor for damages. In reality, however, it’s not that simple.
“If somebody came into your house when you were at work and threw out your personal possessions, you’d get pretty freaking upset. How’s that any different from a sweep?”
—Paul Boden, Executive Director Western Regional Advocacy Project
“Not only is it difficult to prove that someone’s belongings were taken,” says the ACLU’s Mason, “but it’s also incredibly difficult for the poor and houseless to file a claim against the city when their rights have been violated.”
Several houseless Portlanders told the Mercury that while they’d be interested in joining a class-action lawsuit against the city, the cost and energy required to file their own suits would be too prohibitive.
That burden could lighten, Mason says, if houseless people were considered a protected class—giving them the same protections granted to people who are discriminated against for their sexuality or race. The ACLU of Oregon and other civil rights organizations have supported past legislation that would create these protections for homeless Oregonians, but none have been passed into law.
If those protections were in place, Mason says, “The courts would apply a higher level of scrutiny” to the treatment of homeless Portlanders and the confiscation of their belongings.
“We would be forced to answer the question we should have been asking all along,” Mason says. “‘Are we solving a problem, or are we just punishing the victims of a larger one?’”