Rapid Response Bio Clean–a company contracted by the city of Portland to clean up and remove homeless camp sites–has been ordered to pay for items taken from an encampment during a sweep in 2020 that were never stored properly or returned to the owner. 

Rapid Response is the primary contractor the city uses to clean and remove homeless camp sites. 

On June 13, an arbitrator ruled in favor of Lynette Snook, who filed a lawsuit against Rapid Response in 2022. Arbitrators are assigned to review court cases which ask for less than $50,000 in damages.

Snook’s complaint stemmed from a sweep in November 2020, when Snook, her partner, and roughly half a dozen other people living near each other in St. Johns, were scrambling to sort and secure their valuables, as a Rapid Response crew arrived to clear the area. At the time, Snook and her partner were living out of a car and travel trailer.

After multiple items were hauled away, Snook noticed a number of essential and valuable possessions were gone. 

“We were so exhausted from the whole thing,” Snook told the Mercury, recounting that day in 2020, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Normally when you’re told to move, 72 hours notice or whatever, we were always ready to go. During COVID, we weren’t ready for it.”

Snook later realized just how many items she was missing when she tried to transfer things from the vehicle to the trailer.

By law, companies hired to sweep or dispose of homeless sites are required to bag, label, and store any personal belongings of value at a warehouse for 30 days, where the owner can retrieve them. 

That didn’t happen. Instead, Snook said a Rapid Response crew threw away a mobile shower, a portable toilet, propane stove, clothing, boots, cookware, silverware, two brooms, an extension grabber, and two commercial grade, five-gallon sprayers, among other items. 

“They retrieved absolutely nothing. Everything went in the trash,” Snook said.

After unsuccessful attempts to get her items back from Rapid Response, Snook got an attorney, with the help of a few volunteer homeless advocates.

Mimi German is one of those advocates. She observed the sweep that day, documenting with video and photos. German estimates she’s observed about 50 sweeps of encampments from 2021 to 2022. She noted she “rarely sees” companies following protocols for bagging personal belongings.

“The people who are being swept, it’s not possible for them to take notes on what’s going on around them, because they’re in trauma,” German said. “As an advocate for folks in St. Johns, I called and spoke to a woman at the Rapid Response warehouse who said, ‘We don’t have any record for a sweep that day.’”

She was told there was an unrecorded sweep with no drop-off of belongings that day.

“I went back and told everybody [at the site], and we could see they had grounds to sue,” she recalled.

German said unhoused residents live with pervasive fear that their items will be thrown away or stolen. 

Michael Fuller, the attorney who worked on Snook’s case, said his office tried to get payment from the company on behalf of Snook, to no avail. 

“This is the first time Rapid Response has been held responsible,” Fuller said. “The law does not allow you to destroy otherwise clean, usable personable property during a sweep.”

Fuller noted Snook’s case isn’t the first instance of Rapid Response failing to follow protocols regarding storage of personal property, but it’s the first time a suit against the company has come to full fruition.

In 2021, Fuller worked with other legal organizations on a class action lawsuit against the city of Portland, after Fuller placed tracking devices on items confiscated from homeless encampments that went straight to a landfill. 

In that case, attorneys alleged the city’s contractors, including Rapid Response, “have a pattern, practice, and custom of systematically ignoring the requirements of [state law], depriving plaintiffs and other similarly situated homeless people of liberty and property without due process.”

The city later settled with the plaintiffs in that case.

In Snook’s case, attorney and arbitrator Chris Davis said Rapid Response employees testified that they followed the city’s mandatory storage policy, noting they asked residents of the camp what items to discard and were directed to trash.

Still, some of the items thrown away that day, including shoes and tools, are explicitly listed in the city’s policy for mandatory storage, regardless of condition.  

Davis ordered Rapid Response to pay Snook $409 for the tools taken that were never properly stored for her retrieval. Snook is also entitled to reimbursement for any attorney’s fees paid. 

Rapid Response representatives were not immediately available to respond to questions and requests for input.

The lawsuit isn’t a big payout, but Fuller and Snook say they hope it shines a light on some of the systemic issues with the city’s campsite removal contractors, particularly as Portland’s new daytime camping ban is set to take effect in less than two weeks. The new ordinance, coupled with a recent legal settlement over sidewalk access, is likely to yield more campsite sweeps.