PORTLAND, Ore. – Homeless campers, state lawmakers and neighboring police agencies weighed in Thursday on what ODOT and Portland Police agree is a crack in the system.
It surrounds homeless campers living on land owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation.
In short, ODOT and PPB can’t agree on how trespassing laws should be enforced, which often results in officers or staff from each individual agency responding to troublesome camps alone. Both agencies need to be present, representatives agree, to enforce such laws.
And camper Glenn Cooperider, who camps along the I-205 multiuse path, knows that.
Thursday he said it’s common knowledge among campers that ODOT crews can’t make campers move.
“ODOT trucks just came by saying they were going to be coming, but there were no cops,” he said. “They were just saying it, you know, so they can have us pick up real quick. They were just trying to scare us.”
The lag in response time is scaring a Southeast Portland woman, who lives next to a camp. She’s asked to keep her exact location private.
Donna told KGW last week, campers trespass constantly and have tried to break in twice.
Wednesday morning, she realized someone had ripped the screen off of her back door.
“I’m not a weak person,” said Donna, who asked we only use her first name. “I just don't feel people should have to live like this.”
Donna said she’s reached out to Portland Police, Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office and the Oregon Department of Transportation multiple times.
As of Thursday night, the camp was still there, and no eviction notices had been posted.
Nearly a week after KGW first spoke with Donna about the problem, she said nothing has changed.
“You know, I’m trying to protect my family. I'm sure everyone else would do the same thing,” she said.
“We have property owners adjacent to ODOT property everywhere that are suffering greatly,” said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton.
Hamilton said Wednesday the agency’s authority when it comes to clearing ODOT land is limited, partially thanks to past lawsuits.
“ODOT is not a police agency. We cannot force people to leave,” he said. “What we are responsible to do is to clean up this public property, to remove the litter, to remove personal belongings and store them for later retrieval, but we cannot force people to leave.”
Hamilton added the agency leans on law enforcement for that first step, an issue that’s putting an increasing strain on their relationship with Portland police.
“They can't just expect that we're going to go police their property for them,” said Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson.
Simpson said officers are frustrated with the expectations of the state agency, adding they seem to expect PPB to regularly patrol ODOT land and, when necessary, clear campers off of it, without pressing charges.
Simpson said, beyond there being a conflict regarding city police patrolling state-owned land, those expectations are irrational.
“That's not what we're designed to do, especially when you talk about large amounts of property, state property or a business with a giant complex, and they want us to come manage it for them,” said Simpson. “That's not what we're designed to do.”
A spokesman for the Gresham Police Department clarified Thursday, it’s not just PPB’s problem.
He said, legally, if a property owner isn’t accompanying officers on calls and ready to press trespassing charges, their hands would be tied, too.
“They're going to need to be with us,” said Officer Ben Costigan. “We can certainly help them and tell them to leave, but if they don't want to prosecute, there's not much more we can do.”
ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton sent in this response to the PPB’s claims, via email:
“It’s not accurate to say we expect police to patrol our property. What we expect is, like any other property owner, for PPB and other police agencies to respond to lawbreaking or when our workers are in danger. And they’ve been excellent. A few weeks ago the PPB local Neighborhood Response Team came and spoke to employees here about issues in the Old Town neighborhood. That was very helpful and very well received as we’ve had a few instances of our employees threatened around here. And PPB has been very responsive when our workers are attacked in the field. That’s happened a few times, including stabbings, although none major.
And when we carry out enforcement of the state no-camping laws, Portland Police and, when pertinent, other agencies have been very helpful.”
KGW reached out to state lawmakers in Donna’s district and Governor Kate Brown.
Representative Alissa Keny-Guyer responded with this statement:
"It is imperative that the City and ODOT work out MOUs on how to handle unlawful conduct on ODOT land so that people like Donna don’t get caught up in this kind of back and forth. Still, we must also address the underlying problem, which is the housing, homelessness and mental health crisis that is tearing the fabric of our communities. This case illustrates how woefully behind Oregon is in providing affordable housing and shelter options in addition to mental health services. The result is devastating in particular for homeless Oregonians, but also for community members who directly feel the environmental, public health and public safety impact of displaced people who are desperate and have nowhere to go. We need more affordable housing, protections for vulnerable renters, and better resources for struggling families who need help."