Updated: June 30

On a rainy afternoon in Portland’s Woodstock neighborhood, a man on a bicycle stops to peruse dry goods and emergency supplies in bright yellow bins lining Moire Cubbin’s yard. 

The repurposed Amazon bins–double stacked on their sides in a row affixed to the ground–comprise what Cubbin calls her “giving fence.” The fence is her version of a free pantry. 

Each bin includes different types of items, from food, to mini flashlights, gloves, blankets, and hygiene items like tampons, and pads. Sturdy containers provide organization and easy access for those walking or cycling by. The fence has become a drop-off spot for others doing grassroots, small-scale mutual aid work to try to help people living on Portland’s streets.

“It’s a give-and-take-what-you-need kind of thing,” Cubbin said. “All people regardless of age, race, gender, income level, or where they lay their head to sleep can take or leave items at the Giving Fence. The poorest to the richest can take a much needed bottle of water on a scorching hot day.”

Craig, an unhoused man who stops by regularly, said the bin’s supplies have helped shield him from the elements.

“There’s stuff here that you use all the time on the street,” he said. “A warm blanket, or whatever, for when it’s really cold out and rainy and winter and freezing.”

The giving fence draws a steady stream of visitors. It’s also drawn several code enforcement complaints.

Since last June, the city’s code enforcement department has responded to at least four complaints about the property, which sits on a corner lot at a busy intersection. Each report stemmed from Cubbin’s free pantry. 

Moire Cubbin, who asked that her face not be pictured, stocks her giving fence with hygiene items. Cubbin was hit with a storm of code enforcement complaints for her mutual aid efforts. Courtney Vaughn

Because the city allows the personal information of code enforcement complainants to be kept private, she doesn’t know who’s complaining–likely a distant neighbor upset about the extra foot traffic. But one thing is clear: someone is using the city’s code enforcement system to harass and target Cubbin.

Now, she says, it’s starting to feel like the old adage, “no good deed goes unpunished.”

At first, someone complained about spoiled food and scraps being left out. That led an enforcement officer to inspect the property. While on site, the officer noted other issues, beyond what was listed on the initial complaint. 

Ken Ray, a spokesperson with Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS), confirmed code enforcement officers are allowed to cite property owners for violations, even if they weren’t part of a complaint. City employees need permission to enter property or access gated areas that aren’t otherwise visible from the street. 

Cubbin said she and her husband had to relocate their RV, move things around in their backyard–which isn’t visible from the street–and cut and mow the grass, despite a vacant lot across the street with overgrown grass creeping up to the fence line. Three weeks after a violation notice was mailed in March, the city followed up, threatening a $581 fee and a lien against the property if issues weren’t resolved in 30 days.

Initially, she was storing bins in a quaint pantry made from fuchsia painted wood. The fence is the result of multiple attempts to appease code enforcement. Cubbin was told her giving fence didn’t comply with city code either, but later received confirmation from a city planning director, who said although the structure is unusual, it complies with the city’s rules for a fence. 

Still, Cubbin has found herself facing complaint after complaint. 

Some neighbors blame the fence for an increase in garbage in the surrounding area, claiming spoiled food gets left near the fence. It's unclear whether it's coming from Cubbin's property or a nearby food pantry, but the fence has garnered mixed reactions. Some neighbors called it "a monstrosity." Others make sandwiches to leave in the bins. Employees at a nearby burger restaurant have helped Cubbin laminate signs for her fence, to keep them weatherproof. 

By mid-June, Cubbin was relieved to find an outstanding nuisance complaint against her property had been closed, but three days later, she said a new complaint cropped up. 

A giving fence on a corner lot in Southeast Portland's Woodstock neighborhood offers
water, hygiene supplies, shoes, blankets and other essentials. Courtney vaughn

The concept of free pantries and fridges gained steam in 2020 during the pandemic. Across Portland, households began offering food out of refrigerators placed near sidewalks, plugged in with extension cords. Others used discarded cabinets or shelves as makeshift pantries, offering non-perishable food and items. 

Ray, the BDS representative, said city code prohibits storing refrigerators, or any other large household appliance, outside a home. Free pantries are fine, so long as they only store dry, non-perishable items and don’t block a right-of-way or sidewalk. 

Despite the proliferation of the free fridge and pantry effort, the city could find no other code complaints about free pantries, aside from the ones at Cubbin’s house. 

In Portland, there isn’t any real mechanism to prevent a person from using code enforcement in a retaliatory manner. 

Ray noted unfounded complaints don’t stay in property records or negatively impact property owners, but if legitimate violations are observed, a code enforcement complaint will stay on property records indefinitely, whether it’s been resolved or not.

“If there are violations that we find, then we issue a violation order to the property owner with some requirements and deadlines for fixing the concern,” Ray explained.

Cubbin is proud of the help she and others have been able to provide with the fence, but for over a year, she’s faced onerous requirements, financial impacts, and the constant fear that her family will be subjected to never-ending complaints that come with fines, or worse, a lien against her home if issues go unabated.

Cubbin’s efforts may have drawn ire from some neighbors, but others credit the giving fence with improving community relations.

“My wife and I moved here because of this fence,” Roxy Goldston told the Mercury. The couple moved from San Antonio, Texas and now live in an apartment a few blocks from Cubbin’s house. Goldston’s wife is a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. She's now battling terminal breast cancer.

“She’s going to die within the year,” Goldston said. “That’s just part of our reality. And even though I have friends and family here, we knew that we would need community support and that we would need to be able to build (community) with people that had open hearts.”

The couple have been homeless at different points in their lives and both are recovering addicts. Goldston said Cubbin’s mutual aid work was a signal to the couple about the type of neighbors they’d inherit, so they settled in the Woodstock neighborhood. 

The need for basic essentials like those in Cubbin’s fence is likely to increase in coming months, as the city of Portland begins enforcing a new daytime ban on camping or sleeping in many public spaces. The city’s recent settlement of a disability lawsuit regarding sidewalks blocked by tents could also lead to heightened enforcement of anti-homeless policies.

Despite the hurdles she's faced to provide free items, Cubbin isn't backing down.

Inside one of the bins, a phrase scrawled in marker stands out: “As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person.” It’s the edict that started it all, Cubbin says. “It has been my north star, my guiding compass."

Note: This story has been updated with additional input from neighbors.