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'Not really fixing anything': Dozens move from park to school after city of Portland clears homeless camp

Dozens cleared from Laurelhurst Park last week have set up their tents and parked their cars near Sunnyside School. They said the city forced their hand, yet again.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Dozens of people cleared from a large, long-standing homeless camp at Laurelhurst Park in Southeast Portland last week remain on the streets, telling KGW they moved and set up a new camp outside a nearby school. Campers Friday said, immediately after city crews cleared the camp, they set up their tents and parked their cars along the streets and sidewalks bordering Sunnyside School's playground.

One neighbor described the half-mile journey as "a game of ping-pong that goes back years."

“In the last maybe two years, this has happened,” said Anton Silva, who was living in the camp. “And it's kind of strange because in one moment the people are there, and in the next moment, they're gone.”

The city cleared an estimated 60 people from the camp at Laurelhurst Park on July 29, after months of build-up. For nearly a year, neighbors had been reporting the camp to the city, claiming the set-up was unsafe. They documented fires, fights and break-ins. The final straw came last month when multiple people reported campers carrying and brandishing guns.

Officials said this week, about half the people cleared from the park went into shelters and temporary housing. The rest, presumably, stayed on Portland’s streets. Many of them moved to Sunnyside.

Credit: KGW

RELATED: Roughly half of those cleared from Laurelhurst Park homeless camp went into shelters and motels, officials say

Neighbors said this has happened before. In fact, each time Laurelhurst is cleared, they expect it.

“It's not a good look on Portland,” said Kazu Reents, who lives near the school. “I feel like it's not really fixing anything. It's just forcing them to move somewhere else.”

City and county officials readily admit, the cycle highlights a systemic problem. Portland's been operating under a state of "housing emergency" for close to six years. The last government count, conducted in 2019, showed more people than ever, 2,037, are living on the streets of Multnomah County.

One reason is an ongoing shortage of affordable housing, officials said. Denis Theriault, spokesman for the Joint Office of Homeless Services, said campers often refuse shelter beds, arguing there would be nowhere for them to go next.

“There's a scarce amount. There's a limit,” Theriault said in an interview Thursday. “There's a big wait list. That could be several years for some of those units.”

Record investments from recent voter approved housing bonds are starting to turn the tide, but real progress will take time, Theriault said.

RELATED: Portland council amends city code, vowing to lend clarity, efficiency to process of clearing homeless camps

Meanwhile, the city continues clearing about a dozen camps a week. Portland's city council recently adopted a policy to prioritize clearing camps near schools, but neither the city nor Portland Public Schools (PPS) would give a timeline for the camp near Sunnyside School on Friday. 

“There is not enough housing in our city. This is not a PPS issue, this is a citywide humanitarian issue,” wrote PPS spokesperson Karen Werstein in an email Friday. “Our hope, as always, is for everyone's safety - our students and staff both inside and outside our schools and for our neighbors - whether in houses or houseless.”

A representative for the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association told KGW Friday, neighbors had met with the school’s principal this week to discuss the camp. The board member pointed to a joint statement released last year by a coalition of neighborhood groups. It called for a list of long-term and short-term solutions to homelessness, which included managed camps throughout the city.

Portland housing Commissioner Dan Ryan has touted plans to open six "safe rest villages", where people can camp legally, throughout the city by the end of the year. Officials haven’t chosen exact locations yet.

The first day of classes at Sunnyside School is scheduled for September 1.

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