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'Nobody is feeling safe': City begins clearing homeless camp outside Laurelhurst Park

For weeks, housing advocates have been calling on Portland officials to let the tents stay, especially as temperatures drop. Neighbors argue something had to change.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Biohazard crews, contracted by the city of Portland, began clearing homeless campers from an area outside Laurelhurst Park on Thursday morning.

Advocates estimate more than 100 people were packing up their things, unsure of where they would go next.

"It's overwhelming," said one woman, living at the camp. "I mean we all knew it was going to happen."

"It felt like home," said a man who goes by Bandit. "Unfortunately not everyone was respectful of the area."

His point about trash, needles and waste scattered on the ground around the camp is valid. City officials have said, amid the pandemic, they're only clearing camps that present serious health and safety risks.

But housing advocates argue it's the campers who are at risk. For weeks, they've been calling on city officials to let the tents stay, especially as temperatures drop.

"We really feel that lives are at stake right here," said Sandy Lofe of Beacon PDX. "We're always asking the campers to go into a shelter, but a lot of them don't want to leave. This is their home."

Still, neighbors argue something had to change.

"Nobody is feeling safe right now, and that has to be addressed," said TJ Browning. "This is a crisis that has to be addressed."

Browning is the safety chair of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association. She says 15-20 neighbors contact her every day with safety concerns. Stories range from campers throwing rocks at passersby to one story of a man's young daughter finding a strange object in the park.

"She picked up something, and he just got it in time," Browning said. "It was a used syringe."

Last month, a woman jumped out of a tent, ran toward Browning and wrapped her in a bear hug.

"She leaned into me and coughed three or four times and said 'Haha! Now you're going to get sick,'" Browning said.

All the while, Browning noted, another force was at play. Portland's famous anti-police protests started forming at the Southeast Portland park, and neighbors say activists with that cause took up the camp as a cause, too.

Earlier this month, tensions boiled over, Browning said, when the neighborhood association put out a newsletter. They called for the city to find housing and help for people in the camp.

Within days, Browning said, board members learned they'd been doxed, with activists publishing their addresses on Twitter.

"I got several emails from people I didn't know because we're privileged and we want to keep everybody down because we've risen to the top," Browning said, paraphrasing the emails. "I'm like, 'When did we become the enemy?'"

Browning said she blames the city, not campers, for letting things escalate.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan said in separate statements that the sweep would be done to ensure the health and safety of people living in the Portland community and using shared public spaces.

Wheeler added that outreach workers were at the site nearly every day for the past two weeks.

“We created and offered alternative warm, dry indoor spaces for people to go where they have access to hygiene, water, food and services,” Wheeler said. “We posted the site clearly and with ample warning so people were aware that a change was needed.”

By that evening, dozens of tents and camps still remained.

Ryan said the work of clearing encampments is "both complex and challenging," but that the city remains "committed to doing the difficult and necessary work to address all aspects of this crisis."

"Moving forward, we will continue providing compassionate alternatives to street camping while preventing large-scale camps that block sidewalks and rights of way, creating public safety and health risks, and obstructing access to shared community spaces," he added.

Mark Ross with Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) said the location where people were staying was not on Portland Parks & Recreation property, so that department was not part of Thursday's sweep.

"City staff are offering to help people get to and live in Mt. Scott Community Center," Ross said. "It's one of two PP&R community centers being used as shelters for people experiencing homelessness."

Here’s the full statement from Mayor Wheeler:

We are taking action at Laurelhurst Park to ensure the health and safety of people living in our community and of our shared public spaces. Outreach workers have been on-site almost daily for the last two weeks. We created and offered alternative warm, dry indoor spaces for people to go where they have access to hygiene, water, food and services. We posted the site clearly and with ample warning so people were aware that a change was needed. 

Moving forward, we will continue providing compassionate alternatives to street camping while preventing large-scale camps that block sidewalks and rights of way, creating public safety and health risks and obstructing access to shared community spaces.

As we continue to address sites that pose risks to public and environmental health and safety, we will be deliberate in ensuring we continue to thoughtfully and sustainably balance a broad variety of needs and expectations.

We thank the city’s urban camping impact reduction team and the service providers who are staffing our shelters for helping us act with compassion for people experiencing homelessness and for the people who live and work near camps.