IT'S BEEN a steady refrain since last year. Advocates complain the city's homeless are having their valuables confiscated in campsite cleanups, with no recourse to get them back.
"We got—every single week—anecdotal evidence it was happening every night," Dana Haynes, spokesman for Mayor Charlie Hales, said in a recent interview.
But where did those sweeps occur, and who was carrying them out? Those are questions Haynes says complainants could never answer. "Nobody ever came and said, 'That's my stuff.'"
The outrage is perhaps inevitable fallout from what has been one of Hales' most visible focuses since last summer: curbing illegal campsites that pop up throughout town.
But it's also a good indicator of the potential promise, and fraught challenges around accountability, that come with Hales' latest move—contracting with a private security firm to streamline those sweeps.
"Is there a way for people on the streets to give feedback?" asks Israel Bayer, director of Street Roots. "And if there's anything out of bounds, will people have a place to complain?"
As first reported by the Mercury, the city began a new partnership with Pacific Patrol Services (PPS) on April 1. The company has long patrolled certain city parks, and keeps tabs on Portland's high-end condo buildings. Now, for at least the next three months, its staffers will be breaking up homeless campsites on city land, giving occupants a state-mandated minimum 24 hours' notice before taking possessions and tossing detritus.
The potential benefits are unquestionable. City staffers say data on campsite cleanups, for the first time, will be meticulously kept. And campsite occupants will have a central repository—on a bus line—where they can retrieve valuables. The new arrangement also will formalize how all city bureaus treat campsites, Haynes says.
But there are worries, too. Hales' office touted the fact that, in crafting the PPS deal, they brought in homeless advocates from Street Roots and JOIN to offer thoughts. But those advocates were invited only after a deal was inked—more to react than help form it. They tell the Mercury they've still got big questions.
Foremost: training and accountability. Many of the city's homeless already may have had negative experiences with PPS employees or similar security services, says Bayer.
"There are times that I do think it's unclear, when you're performing duties on behalf of a city," Bayer says, "what people's rights are."
Under state law, officials need to notify a social services organization when they flag a campsite. In Portland, that organization has long been JOIN.
Until now, it's fallen on cops to notify JOIN of impending campsite cleanups, says Executive Director Marc Jolin. In most cases, the organization is already familiar with sites and their occupants, so outreach workers don't visit every doomed site to offer services.
It's possible, Jolin concedes, that the new agreement will result in more work for his seven outreach workers. A more streamlined process could see smaller, more-remote campsites getting the boot. Everyone involved with the deal says it's too early to say.
Like Bayer, though, Jolin's primary concern is training.
"It's going to be critical," he says. "Whoever is going to be doing the work, it's going to be important that they have training broadly on homelessness in our community and what it means to be engaging with homeless folks who are sleeping out."
The city says it's on top of this. Though the three-month, $35,000 contract began April 1, PPS won't begin dismantling sites until staff is fully briefed, Haynes says.
But anyone looking for a sensitive approach to these delicate matters on the part of PPS might be dismayed. A recent call from the Mercury, asking the company how it plans to go forward, was fielded by a guy who refused to give his name or talk about the situation.
"We don't make comments to the press about anything," he said before hanging up. "At any time."