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Activists stage 'tarpees' near homeless camps to send message about Portland's housing crisis

'Tarpees,' or wooden teepees draped with tarps, were designed by a Seattle-area man ahead of the 2016 Standing Rock protests.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Along the Peninsula Crossing Trail in North Portland, three tall, white, triangular tents appeared seemingly out of nowhere this week. They’re known as “tarpees,” and the grassroots group of activists who put them there says their looming presence sends a message: The city of Portland needs to think outside the box, if it has any hope of ending this housing crisis.

“We were looking at cost, for one thing,” said activist Mike Horner in an interview Friday. "These are fairly easy to construct. We tried to make it so that people could close the door and be private … have a place to be able to be off the ground, have a place to lay down, have a table.”

Tarpees, wooden teepees draped with tarps, were designed by a Seattle-area man ahead of the 2016 Standing Rock protests. Journalists covering the clash noticed, and eventually, the tarpees became a story in their own right.

Late last year, Horner and other activists in Portland decided both the function and the optics of the tarpees would help them put pressure on the city to ramp up efforts getting people housed. According to the last Point In Time Count, conducted in 2019, more than 2,000 people are sleeping on the streets of Multnomah County. Experts believe that number has spiked during the pandemic, but the 2021 count was postponed due to concerns about spreading COVID-19. So there’s no new data to confirm that theory.

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Credit: Mimi German

Natasha Melton, who’s living in one of the tarpees, noted the city has villages of tiny homes. But she said Portland needs more.

“This is like a step up toward getting your own place,” Melton said. “Because I know people that have gotten their apartments or their housing and have gotten thrown out because of how they were living, because they were so used to being outside.”

Activists told KGW they're calling the group of tarpees "Jason Barns landing" after a man who was hit and killed by a driver in 2018. Barns was homeless at the time, was reportedly killed while collecting bottles and cans along the side of the road.

The push for more housing options comes at a poignant time. Portland’s city council just extended the city’s six-year housing crisis another year, and they're weighing loosening city codes to make opening shelters easier. For a while, commissioners weighed rewriting codes to allow for more outdoor shelters in public parks, but they’ve since ruled that out.

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Friday, KGW reached out to both housing Commissioner Dan Ryan and the Portland Police Bureau about the tarpees, but got no response.

People here say city staff visited this week but left, allowing the tarpees to stay, at least for now.

Neighbors feel like they know where this is going.

“We've had a lot of issues, at night especially, here,” said Fletcher Tripp, who lives about a block from the trail.

There have long been camps in that area, but in the last couple years, the chaos has ramped up. Neighbors told KGW they regularly see fires, drug deals, shootings, and, Tripp said, “There was a knifing here last summer. Two people were knifed on the corner.”

The city has in the past cleared these camps periodically. But now it's not just camps; it's an organized protest with a point to prove.

“It's not that we just want to ignore the problem, and we're ‘nimbys’ and we don't want this in our backyard,” said Todd Liljenquist, who lives near the trail. "The problem is we've been dealing with this for so long. I suffer from a lack of perspective because of the direct impact we’ve been enduring.”

Organizers said they understand neighbors are frustrated. So, they're taking a pitch to the city: find them land elsewhere to put the tarpees on, and they’ll build more. Each tarpee costs about $250 to assemble, and they've already got business owners buying in.

Credit: Mimi German

“I would donate 50 of these,” said Marcus Lampros in an interview Friday.

Lampros. who founded and sold Portland-based Lampros Steel, is all in on using tarpees to house Portland's homeless. He has no doubt that if the land was there other business owners would chip in, too.

“Look, we all know the city tries as hard as they can to do what they can, but it's like turning a big ship, right?" Lampros said. "It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. Quite frankly, the situation is getting worse and worse every day.”

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