Editor's note: This story was published on October 1, 2017

Tent City, USA is a KGW investigative project that explores who Portland’s homeless tent campers are and what led to the proliferation of tent camps across the city. Tent City, USA was reported and produced by KGW's investigative team: Kyle Iboshi, Maggie Vespa, John Tierney, Sara Roth and Gene Cotton. Infographics and multimedia design by Jeff Patterson.

There is an 18-mile paved path that runs along I-205 from the Columbia River in Northeast Portland south to Clackamas.

Portland police Sgt. Randy Teig on the multi-use path along the Columbia River, where he regularly patrols homeless camps 
Portland police Sgt. Randy Teig on the multi-use path along the Columbia River, where he regularly patrols homeless camps 

It’s not the prettiest path in Portland with several sections that run right along the interstate. But it’s the main route for cyclists and pedestrians who want to avoid roads while riding or walking north and south through that part of the city.

Many days the path also plays hosts to a string of homeless camps.

The “multi-use path,” or MUP, as the path is known, is in many ways representative of the homeless problem that can be found across of Portland: Campers set up their tents out of desperation; many of the camps are littered with garbage and syringes; neighbors complain about drug use, trash and petty crime; police officers try to keep order on the path while adhering to a complex web of rules and laws that govern how they interact with homeless people.

Patrolling the MUP

On a Wednesday afternoon in early September, Portland Police Sergeant Randy Teig drove along Southeast Division Street in his unmarked grey patrol SUV. As he approached the place where the MUP crosses Division he flipped on the flashing lights hidden behind tinted glass and turned onto the trail.

Teig joined a small convoy of other officers from the East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team with lights flashing, waiting along the trail. They started southward, occasionally pulling out of the way for a cyclist to pass.

Within a few minutes, Teig and his team had pulled alongside a row of tents erected just a few feet off the bike path. The tents were only about 30 feet from nearby houses – one of which displayed a “for sale” sign in the front yard.

Teig wasn’t forcing homeless campers to leave. That can only be done after notice is posted for at least 24 hours. But he was trying to maintain some law and order along the public space.

“We’re running warrants and talking to people,” Teig explained. “Dangerous people are being removed and taken to jail on charges or warrants or whatever legal justification. None of it is ever connected to their status as homeless or campers.”

That last line is important. Teig was illustrating the fact he’s following an Oregon law passed in 2015 that prevents police officers from targeting someone based solely on the fact they’re homeless.

In other words, officers can’t profile someone for being homeless in the same way they can’t profile based on race, religion or sexual orientation.

That law is just one of several major legal and political decisions that shape how police and government officials deal with homelessness in Portland.

In fact, there are so many laws and court decisions governing the treatment of homeless people and camps that Teig wrote a 43-page guide to understand them all. He hands the guide to upset neighbors who complain that police aren’t moving fast enough to remove a homeless camp in their neighborhood.

“They start some kind of narrative around that. It could be, ‘The camps are here, the police’s hands are tied, they’re completely incapable of doing something around it.’ All of which is a myth,” Teig explained. “It’s complicated. It’s difficult. So what we try to do is let them have the facts.”

There are several mileposts that stand out when you look at the policy and legal decisions that shaped the current state of homeless tent camping in Portland. Perhaps none had a bigger impact on than a lawsuit known as Anderson v. City of Portland.

The impact of Anderson v. City of Portland

Marlin Anderson was homeless and sleeping in Delta Park in North Portland on a summer day in 2007 when a Portland police officer approached. It wasn’t the first time the officer had stopped Anderson and warned him not to camp in the area.

The officer cited Anderson for unlawful camping. He pleaded not guilty.

The charges were later dropped, but that didn’t end the legal battle. Anderson joined several other homeless plaintiffs who sued the City of Portland in 2008, claiming their constitutional rights were violated.

The city and plaintiffs eventually agreed to settle the lawsuit in 2012. The plaintiffs only received a few thousand dollars but the agreement laid out a strict set of rules the city had to follow when clearing homeless camps.

Among the rules:

  • Campers must be given notice at least 24 hours and not more than 7 days before a camp is cleared
  • Confiscated property must be held for at least 30 days
  • Agencies must take photos and keep a list of confiscated property, although backpacks may not be opened.
  • Campsites must be videotaped after items have been confiscated
  • Campers will not be moved at night unless an emergency requires it