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Cycle of Portland homeless camp cleanups leaves campers demoralized, neighbors frustrated

Officials say they're balancing safety and campers' rights. The city doesn't clear sites that have less than eight tents and are clean, with no conspicuous drug use.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Socks, deodorant, and a sleeping mat are just some of the items one man stuffed into his backpack on the streets of Southwest Portland Thursday morning. His friends call him Lobo. He's been experiencing homelessness for 31 years. 

"I'm getting ready to leave because we're not allowed to be anywhere," he said, pulling his red wagon filled to the brim with backpacks and food. "It seems as if they've made it illegal to be a person in Portland."

He was sitting outside a business on Southwest Washington Street when city crews told him to move. 

"It's demoralizing," he said. "Makes me feel like I’m lower than the lowest of the human class."

RELATED: City removes certain homeless camps along NE 33rd & Marine Drive

Across the street, Jackie James swept the sidewalk in front of her tent on Southwest 4th and Stark. She moved to that corner Wednesday after city crews cleared her from another site. She said the city has swept her campsite 18 times.

"At this point, it kind of just seems like a routine, you know, so I don't really think too much about it," she said. "I don't go far, you know, I just go somewhere where I can sit down and try to think for the next move."

When the city clears campsites, staff offer people free transportation to nearby shelters. James said she took the offer once, but found ultimately it wasn’t for her. 

"You gotta be in and out at a certain time and that just didn't fit for me at the time," she said.

RELATED: Downtown Clean & Safe crews make a difference on some of Portland’s most dangerous streets

Josh Barett, who works at The Portland Outdoor Store down the street, said he watches homeless campsites move in and out of the neighborhood like a revolving door.

"They just go around the corner and set up right over there, same situation," he said. "It's like, that business gets a break from it and then they just move it, so it's like, 'when is it our turn again?'"

City officials who spoke to KGW said they know that clearing campsites is only a temporary solution, and they firmly maintain the position that homelessness is not a crime, but their goal is to minimize urban camping's impact on the community.

Camps are only removed if they violate the city's health and safety guidelines, the officials said — for example, the city likely wouldn't remove a site that has fewer than eight tents, clear walkways and remains clean, with no conspicuous drug use.

While any camp can be removed without formal assessment under Mayor Ted Wheeler's emergency declaration, according to the Street Services Coordination Center, most are evaluated under an elaborate list of criteria. The number of tents and visibility of drug use are just two of many aspects that may be grounds for removal.

RELATED: Every night, roughly 260 shelter beds for Portland homeless aren’t being used

Even so, neighbors near some of the recurring campsites said they felt neglected by the city.

"It's like a cancer all over town," said Charles Reed, who said he watched the same camp outside his apartment on Southwest 3rd Avenue and Pine Street get cleared three times since the end of June. 

"It's really disheartening because I don't feel we're getting the response, as taxpayers, from the county and city of Portland," he said.

City officials said they hope to find a broader solution one day, but at the moment they lack the resources to prevent people from returning to the same sites. They encouraged residents to continue reporting problematic campsites to PDX reporter or by calling the city's Information and Referral team at 311.

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