Joe Angel never expected to get his belongings back, much less be paid for their value.
Angel and his partner live out of a car and travel trailer in the St. Johns neighborhood.
In 2020, several of their items were confiscated by Rapid Response Bio Clean–a city-contracted cleaning company that removes unhoused people’s items and tents from Portland’s public spaces.
Rapid Response is supposed to store items in a warehouse for at least 30 days, where they can be retrieved by owners, but instead, the company’s employees took Angel’s items directly to the dump.
With a nudge from homeless advocates and the help of a pro bono attorney, Angel and his partner, Lynette Snook, both sued the company in separate complaints, leading Rapid Response to eventually pay the full amounts requested. In Angel's case, that amounts to about $4,700.
While a court arbitrator sided with Angel's partner in her case against Rapid Response, preventing it from going to trial, his arbitration hearing didn’t initially go his way, so Angel's attorney asked for a full court hearing. Rapid Response opted to pay Angel the full amount requested in his lawsuit, instead of prolonging the case and incurring trial expenses.
“They’re gonna pay me every nickel that I asked for,” Angel said of the cleanup company. “At the arbitration hearing that I had, the judge sided with them 100 percent. He wasn’t gonna give me anything. So me and my attorney decided, well, we’ll just take it to trial.”
The items the company is alleged to have thrown away include a winter coat, boots, a toolbox, various saws and tools, bike parts, a propane stove and other miscellaneous items.
Angel said he and his spouse typically keep their area clean and tidy, but that particular day, he was building a trailer and left some of his tools and items splayed out while he worked.
Legally, any items of value or utility must be stored for 30 days in a warehouse, to allow the owner to claim them.
City workers acknowledge the difficulty and gray area that often arises from trying to sort personal belongings during a sweep. Typically, if the resident is present at the site during a clean-up, Rapid Response crews will ask them to designate what they want to keep, and what’s trash. Absent that guidance, crews are supposed to refer to the city’s list of items that qualify as personal property and must be stored at a warehouse.
Michael Fuller, the attorney who represented Angel and his partner in their respective lawsuits, said he finds both cases “personally vindicating.”
“When we filed these cases, both the city and Rapid Response told us we were dead wrong, and just not telling the truth,” Fuller, who owns Underdog Law Office, told the Mercury.
He noted that while Rapid Response’s decision to settle with Angel is not a determination of liability or admission of fault, it suggests the company didn’t want to go to trial with the evidence.
Fuller is the same attorney who placed GPS tracking devices on items at homeless camps that were later confiscated by Rapid Response and traced to the dump, meaning none of the items were stored, as required by the city’s contract.
Rapid Response did not respond to a request for comment.
Fuller and Angel say they hope the recent lawsuits prevent others living on Portland’s streets from having their personal belongings trashed during what is already a typically traumatic situation.
“It has to be considered, moving forward, both by the city and Rapid Response or whatever contractor, that they agree to follow the law in regard to campsite sweeps,” Fuller said.
The mayor’s office said the city already revamped its policies and protocols for campsite sweeps last year, in light of the litigation against Rapid Response.
“Our camping policy was adopted last year to reflect updates to changes in protocol, some of which were in response to the incident that occurred in 2020,” Cody Bowman, a spokesperson for Mayor Ted Wheeler, noted.
According to the terms of the city’s contract with Rapid Response, the city is authorized to prevent specific employees from working on city clean-up jobs if they get word of any impropriety or lack of adherence to storage protocols.
Requests for campsite removals happen frequently. City data indicates 96 sites were swept from Aug. 7 to 13, out of more than 2,300 reported to the city.
Angel and Snook haven’t been subject to any sweeps since the 2020 incident. Fuller said he initially tried to help file complaints against Rapid Response on behalf of several unhoused clients who had items thrown away, but he lost contact with many of them as the cases progressed.
Angel and Snook were different. They stayed the course and were diligent about keeping in contact and showing up when needed, Fuller said.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Angel said of the lawsuit. “I’ve always just taken my licks and kept on going.”
Angel says the money he was awarded–roughly $4,737–will help him and his spouse fix up their trailer, or maybe even get a more reliable vehicle.
“It’s a chunk of money we don’t normally have,” Angel said. “We've been waiting all this time to come up with a van or pickup truck that could tow the trailer more easily. It’s gonna help us sort of move forward.”
To recognize the couple’s cooperation and persistence, Fuller’s office is awarding them with a “Client of the Year” award. They’ll get a plaque and a small catered banquet dinner, coordinated by Fuller’s office.