PORTLAND, Ore. — Six months after the city cleared campers from the streets lining Laurelhurst Park, reps for all five Portland city commissioners Friday met with activists protesting the idea of another sweep. Those activists say they’re protecting the dozens of people who returned to the park months ago, making the Southeast Portland neighborhood look like the city had never intervened.
“We wouldn't be here if people didn't ask us to be here,” said Benjamin Donlon, with Stop The Sweeps.
In an interview, Donlon said he expects the meeting to be the first of several conversations, aimed at resolving the issue peacefully. He said if the city were to offer more options for organized outdoor camps, people camping along Laurelhurst Park would gladly go.
“I don't want to be here no more. It's been too long to deal with an environment as chaotic as this," said Christopher Kerby, who lives in the camp. He added he's been homeless since he was 13.
"I don't know how to live like you," he said.
Friday's meeting comes after months of complaints from homeowners living near Laurelhurst Park. Multiple neighbors told KGW they've endured threats, theft and attempted break-ins. They hear screams at night. Early Monday morning one neighbor, who wished to remain anonymous, took a photo of a tent on fire after hearing an explosion in the camp.
“There were those propane tanks next to the fire. It was huge. It was a massive fire,” said the neighbor in a phone interview.
Campers told KGW the fire was an accident and no one was hurt.
“There's many people who want to make this a housed versus unhoused situation. That is just simply not truthful or accurate,” said TJ Browning, safety chair of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association. “This situation victimizes the housed and the unhoused.”
In an interview Friday, Browning called the camp a "lose-lose" situation, adding she puts all the blame on City Hall. She thinks Portland officials don't get frightening this has been and how much people in the camp need serious help.
“We have people in obvious mental health crises trying to break into [neighbors’] doors and their homes,” she said. “We had a child come out of their front door into their front yard, and a woman with mental health issues, and I understand. I have empathy and compassion… However, she came running across the park to him and was screaming ‘I'm going to kill you! I'm going to kill you!’”
Browning added she didn’t know why the neighborhood association wasn’t invited to be a part of Friday’s Zoom conversation.
Friday afternoon all five city commissioners, including Mayor Ted Wheeler, issued a joint statement. It reads:
We reject the narrative that the choice at Laurelhurst is to sweep or not to sweep. The balance between safe sleep options, public health, public access, livability, and HUCIRP’s scope of work deserves more nuance. Today, all Council Offices are meeting with Laurelhurst activists and campers to discuss next steps. City Council is also working on a comprehensive solution to urban camping across the City of Portland that can apply regardless of which commissioner’s bureau owns the land.
KGW is waiting on the results of that meeting. So are neighbors, who are quick to point out, the city has promised to take care of this before.