When flames engulfed a corner of the Clackamas Service Center (CSC) on July 3, the consequences for the surrounding neighborhood reached beyond blaring sirens disrupting the morning quiet.
Located just beyond Portland’s southern limits—a short walk from the Springwater Corridor—the CSC plays a crucial and somewhat unique role in an area where Portland’s homeless crisis is being felt most distinctly. As the houseless population swells, the CSC serves 10 hot meals a week, hands out boxes of groceries, offers showers and haircuts, and works to connect its visitors with social services and public benefits.
Or it did, anyway.
Most of those services went up in the flames that gnawed at the small white building’s exterior, and the CSC can’t say when it will be fully operational again. (Authorities are still unsure whether or not the fire was set intentionally.)
“There isn’t anyone else doing what we’re doing,” says Debra Mason, the center’s executive director. “The concern while we’re closed is, where are these people going?”
But as a collection of disparate groups work to fill the void left by the center’s closing, they’re stirring up resentments.
Since the fire, at least four separate outfits have provided meal service to homeless Portlanders who might have formerly relied on the CSC. Some of those efforts were in place before the center burned, and some have sprung up since. But the new activity has ramped up pressure from nearby residents, who think the freelance meals are making the area’s problems worse.
Advocates say Portland police have begun taking notice, too, threatening to issue citations to people serving meals, and scattering people seeking food.
The confrontation centers largely on a small East Portland cul-de-sac, just off the MAX Green Line stop at Southeast Flavel.
Since well before the fire, the outreach group Operation Nightwatch (ONW) has hosted small “feeds” for homeless Portlanders at the site on Fridays. When the CSC closed, the group expanded that service to Saturdays, bringing in an RV and setting up tents to serve sandwiches and beverages, hand out blankets, and chat with people living nearby.
“We believe in social interaction for people who are marginalized or homeless,” says Paul Underwood, ONW’s executive director. “We serve food, but food is more an avenue to engage in a conversation.”
Others have taken to ONW’s model.
A group calling itself Emergency Clackamas Meals began serving food in the cul-de-sac on Thursdays and Sundays. Combined with food offerings at other sites in the area, advocates say, homeless Portlanders in and around the Lents neighborhood had options nearly every day of the week.
Steve Kimes, a local pastor and member of the group, says that after the closing of the CSC, deep Southeast Portland has a “huge lack” of resources. “It was an important service for people who are houseless and people who are desperately poor, and just—boom—all of the sudden it’s gone,” he says.
The CSC isn’t the only missing resource. A Gresham shelter called the Red Barn operated by Kimes’ Anawim Christian Community recently shut its doors. And the East Portland day center operated by homeless outreach organization JOIN is temporarily closed for “mold remediation and repairs.” Both JOIN and CSC are offering a very limited slate of services while they renovate.
But for Lents residents—who saw the Springwater Corridor teeming with large camps last year, and who’ve lately witnessed a surge of people living in RVs in the area—the efforts to fill that gap are problematic.
“They’re coming into Lents and they’re increasing heavily the frequency at which they’re doing these feeds in the neighborhood,” says Cora Potter, a board member with the Lents Neighborhood Association. “It’s really impacting our ability to keep the large camps from forming.”
In the eyes of Potter and other East Portland residents the Mercury spoke with, the meals allow homeless campers to live comfortably along the I-205 path or in other hotspots, without seeking services or having incentive to move along. A common refrain is one offered by Lents resident Thomas Legg, who says he walks the Springwater Corridor daily, speaking with people and cleaning up.
“In the Lents Neighborhood, it’s a different demographic of homeless people,” he says. “What we’re dealing with are the more chronically addicted and criminal elements.”
People like Legg have begun urging police to crack down on meal services, raising objections that include food safety and people clogging roads. It’s worked.
Several weeks ago, Portland police told Operation Nightwatch that its operation near the Flavel Street MAX station was potentially illegal, and that cops might begin issuing tickets.
“The police were letting us know they would be looking at potential violations for blocking roads,” says Underwood.
Sgt. Randy Teig, who heads up the Neighborhood Response Team in the police bureau’s East Precinct, confirmed the interaction, saying police would help the group find another location.
An East Portland resident named Janet Taylor, who’s been distributing meals for the homeless on her own for more than a year, had a similar experience.
These days, Taylor hands out food twice a week in the parking lot of Mt. Scott Market, at the corner of Southeast Foster and 101st. Since the CSC shuttered, she says, demand for food increased rapidly.
“There’s minimal cussing,” Taylor says. “There’s nothing but politeness.” The owner of the market, JR Korin, tells the Mercury he’s given Taylor permission to set up shop.
But last week, Taylor says, a police cruiser pulled up and an officer demanded to know what she was doing. When she explained she had the business’ permission to use the lot, “He kind of called me a liar,” Taylor says. “He said, ‘You can’t have your picnic here. Have it at your house.’”
When the officer threatened to begin running the names of people in attendance, the gathering quickly disbanded, Taylor says.
Taylor is undeterred. She planned to set up shop in the market’s parking lot this past Monday night as usual. Korin, the market owner, backed her up.
“I love what she do,” he told the Mercury. “Whoever gave her a hard time, they’re not humans.”
Operation Nightwatch, too, has continued to operate in its cul-de-sac, albeit on a smaller scale. Last Saturday, the group set up a table on the side of the road, distributing sandwiches and drinks to a steady stream of people who made their way from the Springwater Corridor.
It’s not that the group doesn’t understand neighbors’ concerns—every advocate the Mercury spoke with on this topic agreed that Lents residents have valid points.
“We all have concerns around homelessness, we just differ on the approach,” says Underwood, who adds it’s not uncommon for angry residents to pull up and film their meal services. “We’re not confrontational. We just want to serve sandwiches.”