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'Right now, they're bouncing people around': City, neighbors and houseless struggle with sweeps near cemetery

A camp near Lone Fir Cemetery was supposed to be swept last week, but there are still homeless individuals camped there.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Despite a posted notice that a camp near Southeast Portland's Lone Fir Cemetery was to be swept last week, homeless individuals are still camped there.

A cemetery with gravesites dating back to the 1800s, Lone Fir is owned and operated by the governing agency Metro, but Metro’s jurisdiction ends at the cemetery’s gates. The city of Portland controls the sidewalks and streets bordering the property. 

Last week, KGW spoke with Brooke Lee, whose daughter has been buried at the cemetery since 2017. 

She said homeless camps in and around the cemetery grew in the last year, and said she has even witnessed people urinating and defecating inside the cemetery. On NextDoor, others have reported campers brandishing knives. 

“Families come here to grieve, and we need this to remain a safe haven,” Lee said.

Just three days after our interview with Lee, the city's Homelessness and Impact Reduction Program posted the site to be swept on Aug. 20. Crews have been cleaning and removing campsites Monday through Wednesday of this week. 

KGW sent a crew to Lone Fir Wednesday morning, after finding out several large tombstones were toppled and vandalized. Heather Hafer with the city of Portland said the gravestones were not toppled by people experiencing homelessness. 

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While shooting video, they ran into Mayor Ted Wheeler's aide, Sam Adams. At the time he refused an interview. He later emailed the following statement regarding the camps:

"There remains some campers who moved across the street and a few blocks away. I will work with city staff to get these sites addressed and moved if possible. Relatedly, I worked with [the Portland Bureau of Transportation] to have the cars/RVs evaluated potentially to be moved. They were evaluated and met criteria to be moved. They are supposed to posted [Wednesday] and moved in the coming days," Adams said. 

However, it's clear the area has become a flashpoint for all parties involved.

Friends of Lone Fir Cemetery, a volunteer group that helps clean up the cemetery after incidents of vandalism, told KGW they're frustrated by the city's response. 

"We wish the city of Portland and Metro could figure out a solution together," they wrote Wednesday. "Metro has been responsive and attentive, but we have heard nothing from the City of Portland despite inquiries to Commissioner Hardesty’s office and the Office of Community and Civic Life, which she oversees. We assume that the Office of Community and Civic Life is the appropriate city agency to handle this situation, and Commissioner Hardesty oversees that office."

The feeling is mutual to William, a man who grew up in the neighborhood and is now camping there.

"I heard [the city is] trying to come up with big plan for homeless people," William said as he tried to clean up and organize his belongings. "Right now, they're bouncing people around."

It’s worth noting the camp is part of a clear pattern. Many came to Sunnyside from nearby Laurelhurst Park last month, when the city cleared a camp of roughly 60 people. Less than half of those cleared, officials said, went into shelters and motels. Many who declined cited the shortage of long-term affordable housing, meaning they didn't want to move to a shelter if there was nowhere for them to go next.

The city hopes to debut six "safe rest villages" throughout the city by the end of the year. According to City Commissioner Dan Ryan, they will be covered by $20 million in federal COVID-19 relief money. As of Aug. 25, no specific addresses or dates have been released.