Homeless crisis: Should Portland be able to sweep camps on ODOT property?
Author: Maggie Vespa
Published: 3:48 PM PST February 9, 2018
Updated: 3:48 PM PST February 9, 2018
HOMELESS 5 Articles

Homeless crisis: Should Portland be able to sweep camps on ODOT property?

Chapter 1

Welcome to Portland

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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Driving west along I-84 into Portland on a recent morning, overpasses and vegetation obstructed the view at first.

But eventually a pair of black and green tents, tied down with ropes and bungee cords, came into plain sight for countless drivers and passengers cruising by, under the NE Halsey overpass.

Presumably, at least some of them would end up calling Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office to report the camp.

It happens a lot.

“When folks are coming to visit the city of Portland, and they fly into the airport and they drive into downtown, they do so on Highway 84. That’s sort of our welcome red carpet,” said deputy chief of staff Michael Cox. “However, anybody who drives that stretch of road will notice occasionally a lot of trash and debris on the side of the highway or the hills back there.”

But the city can’t do anything about those camps. That could change with a proposed state law that would impact the jurisdictional stalemate that has prevented more action.

Previously: City may soon have ability to sweep more camps

“That land is actually not owned by the city of Portland, and therefore we have limited action when it comes to cleaning that up,” he said.

That small patch of grass, like most interstate-adjacent properties across the state, is owned and maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Chapter 2

A legal loophole

Per a 2011 legal settlement, Tucker v. ODOT, ODOT is bound by some of the toughest restrictions of any local governing agency when it comes to clearing possessions, and subsequently people, off its land.

ODOT crews must post a laminated, weather resistant notice in a “conspicuous location within the general vicinity of the campsite”, showing date of the posting, the date of the scheduled clean-up, how long ODOT plans to store the property and a phone number that campers can call to retrieve their property.

A homeless camp on ODOT land in Portland, KGW 2018
A homeless camp on ODOT land in Portland, KGW 2018

Finally, crews can’t clear campers or their possessions from the property for at least 10-19 days.

That’s compared to the city’s 48-hour notice requirements, stipulated by a separate court settlement in 2012. Once ODOT crews do clear a camp on their property, the slate is wiped clean. Campers can come back, even hours later.

If and when they do, the process starts over.

A spokesman for ODOT said Thursday the agency performs 200-300 sweeps a year.

“Yeah, you want to stay on ODOT land because it’s like it’s not criminal. You know what I mean,” said Caleb “Alabama”, a man camping on ODOT property near Southeast 92nd and Division.

It’s a piece of land marked by one of ODOT’s permanent signs that reads ‘No Trespassing’. Campers had set up two large tents less than 50 feet away.

“You can’t really shut the area down,” he said.

Tucker v. ODOT Settlement by KGW News on Scribd

Chapter 3

Sweeps within 48 hours by the city

During the current legislative session, scheduled to end March 11, the city and ODOT are looking to drastically narrow the timing loophole created by those two settlements.

If passed, House Bill 4054 would allow ODOT to enter into an intergovernmental agreement with any city, such as Portland, with a population larger than 500,000 people.

Under that agreement, city crews could then take over clearing property, including that of homeless campers, from land owned and maintained by ODOT.

In Portland’s case, it means the city could collect and monitor clean-up requests concerning ODOT land via the city’s One Point of Contact app and notify social service agencies who work with the city and Multnomah County via their joint Office of Homeless Services that a clean-up is imminent.

It also means they could carry out those requests under the city’s shorter 48-hour timeline.

Clearing a homeless camp on ODOT property, KGW, 2018
Clearing a homeless camp on ODOT property, KGW, 2018

“ODOT is responsible as an agency for maintaining highways across the state. They are not a homeless services agency. The city of Portland, however, in partnership with the County and service providers, does this work every day,” said Michael Cox of the Mayor’s office.

“What we want to do is create some consistency and improve the collaboration between our agency and the state agencies to make sure we can do what the people of Portland expect which is to keep our city clean, to keep our city safe and to care for our most vulnerable citizens.”

On Wednesday morning, Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, testified at a hearing on the bill in front of the House Committee on Transportation Policy.

His testimony largely echoed Cox’s support.

“Portland’s current approach and the one the city would use if entered into an [intergovernmental agreement] with ODOT has a number of important benefits,” he said. “This is an extremely transparent system… This transparency heads off misunderstandings and builds both trust and accountability.”

Jolin talked about weekly conference calls that include representatives from Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office, Multnomah County, law enforcement agencies, social service providers and other organizations.

“These calls and the relationships that have formed through them have helped mitigate the impacts of clean-ups on campers, frequently connecting them with vital services,” he said. “There’s also a level of coordination between public safety and social services around the people impacted by clean-ups that I have not experienced before.”

Chapter 4

'They have nowhere to go'

That said, not everyone at the hearing championed the bill.

A representative from the Oregon Law Center, the organization who brought the policy-changing suits against both ODOT and the city of Portland years ago, also spoke at Wednesday’s hearing.

“We think that camps are one way that neighbors who are houseless can protect themselves and create some community and provide some greater stability for themselves, and so we are very concerned about any disruption of that community and that safety,” said Sybil Hebb, director of legislative advocacy at the Oregon Law Center.

Hebb added during her testimony, though, that the agency is “neutral” on the bill, adding, “We understand that there are competing needs that the city and ODOT are trying to manage with respect to… neighborhoods and also our neighbors who are houseless.”

Kimberly McCullough, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon, spoke immediately after Hebb.

She started her testimony by stating that the organization is also “neutral” on the bill, but her testimony was more pointed.

“What we are talking about is a situation where ultimately people are swept from spaces that they convene with each other,” she said. “They have nowhere to go. They’re moved from place to place to place. Each time they’re moved, they lose more of their belongings… Being broken up in that way creates an intense lack of safety because of the isolation.”

“There is still a lot of deep discrimination in our society where homeless people are blamed for the circumstances they are in,” she said. “The reason that people are homeless is because there is a lack of affordable housing.”

Neither Hebb nor McCullough made any mention of potential legal challenges to the bill, if passed.

Michael Cox Thursday said staff with the Mayor’s office are confident that the strategy of applying the city’s timeline to state controlled land.

“We certainly have an eye to the legalities and feel like this is something that we can do, if it’s done right,” he said. “This is a priority for the city.”

Chapter 5

Views vary on homeless camps

In Southeast Portland, a homeless man named Caleb said he had not heard of the bill that would allow the city to clear his camp within two days.

There’s a stretch of homes nearby, one of which belongs to Donna, a woman who’s contacted KGW multiple times for help clearing campers who, she said, threatened and harassed her.

Caleb said he felt bad for homeowners who are nervous watching camps form near their property, but he pointed out his camp serves a purpose.

Women follow the bike path down below to this camp, he said, looking for protection from abuse and assault. Breaking them up would send already traumatized people back into a life of solitude and vulnerability.

“We’ve got a few college degrees, a couple vets up there and stuff like that. They’re good people. A lot of these are just young people doing their thing,” he said. “Give them a little direction.”

Across town, Thursday morning, that small camp perched above I-84 appeared to be empty. Tents were zipped up, belongings were packed away and all was quiet.

Across the street, staff at The ARC of Multnomah-Clackamas, a non-profit that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, were relieved amid the peace and quiet.

“It’s getting out of control,” said Francesca Rosborough, an administrative assistant.

Rosborough was alone inside the organization’s office and donation center one Friday morning a few weeks back, when a man walked in.

Sign at donation center for ARC of Multnomah-Clackamas, KGW 2018
Sign at donation center for ARC of Multnomah-Clackamas, KGW 2018

She believes he came from the camp across the street. He was aggressive and approached her, demanding a free bike.

“He just came right next to my chair where I was sitting at my desk,” she said. “He just threatened me and said ‘Well, it’s just better that you give me the bike. Otherwise I will have to steal it.’”

Donation center for ARC of Multnomah-Clackamas, KGW 2018
Donation center for ARC of Multnomah-Clackamas, KGW 2018

Rosborough said it was at that moment that a male coworker walked in, prompting the man to run off. She and her boss Dee Wright called the Portland Police non-emergency line.

For Wright, hearing her employee’s safety put at risk was the last straw.

“I don’t care whose land it is. They need to come clean it up… We’ve had needles, blood, everything out here,” she said. “But again, they cleaned it up and they’ll be back in a couple days. So they need to figure out a long-term solution.”

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