PORTLAND, Ore. – Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has taken an about-face on his strategy to address homelessness, by sweeping the city’s largest unsanctioned homeless camp along the Springwater Corridor starting September 1.
In February, Hales relaxed the city's rules on outdoor camping with his six-month-long “Safe to Sleep” program, which allowed homeless people to stay outdoors in tents overnight without violating the camping ordinance.
But the mayor’s office said the program caused confusion and the city was pressured to crack down on outdoor camping.
During the Safe to Sleep program, the Springwater Corridor evolved into a sprawling homeless camp with hundreds of people sleeping in tents and makeshift shelters. The camp has generated piles of trash and unsanitary conditions along the trail, near homes and businesses.
Photos: Springwater Trail sweep begins
In May, the city swept a one-mile-long section of the trail. Now, they’re sweeping the entire 14 miles that run from Milwaukie to Gresham.
Hales initially planned the sweep for August but decided to wait a month because the city didn’t have enough shelter beds. Shelters are still at capacity but the sweep will go forward, with city workers kicking people off the trail during the month of September.
Hales is on vacation during the sweep and will return Sept. 7, his office confirmed. The Willamette Week reports Hales is moving his 44-foot sailboat to California.
The sweep means many of the estimated 600 people who live outside along the Springwater Corridor face eviction with nowhere to stay.
“What's going to happen? Where are these people going to go?" said Thomas Dent, who has lived on the Springwater Trail since January. “It's unconscionable. It’s disrespecting people's human rights."
Dent said he planned to leave before the sweep and take some of the most vulnerable people with him.
“Going to take a few of the old guys who are disabled and stuff,” he said.
City’s plan for the sweep
Some campers and neighbors are concerned the sweep could spur violence, but city officials said they hope to avoid forceful evictions.
"We're still going to go into this with a very soft touch," said Chad Stover, the city of Portland's Policy Director of Livability, and the organizer of the sweep. "We want to do this gently. We're going to do this with compassion and in a humane way. We'll be there to help them get open shelter or get them in a place where they're in a more low impact way of camping."
Stover says city park rangers, county jail inmate work crews and paid contract crews will be on the trail for nearly a month.
Right now, Stover says 11 rangers patrol city parks. That includes the Springwater Trail.
To keep campers from coming back, more rangers could be hired or reassigned to cover the Springwater Corridor. They don't have the authority to ticket or arrest anyone, but rangers can enforce the no-camping rule.
Portland police have a limited role in the sweep and will only step in if there are significant crime or safety issues.
“I want to emphasize that this is not a ‘police homeless sweep’ as it is so often portrayed, implied or otherwise messaged – our role is extremely limited,” said police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson. “The overall strategy is organized by the mayor’s office.”
Crews won't work on the portions of trail that pass through Gresham, Clackamas County or Milwaukie. They'll start on the most densely populated portion, near Southeast 82nd Avenue through Southeast 111th Avenue.
Dumpsters are on site for trash. Temporary storage facilities will hold belongings the homeless can't physically carry. Campers will have until Nov. 1 to collect any belongings from storage containers.
The Bureau of Environmental Services, which owns and maintains the natural habitats along the Springwater, plans to restore the wetlands and foliage damaged by a year of camping and garbage dumping.
With few options, homeless could fight back
Homeless advocates say there will be plenty of people standing their ground, attempting to stay along the trail.
If any homeless people protest the sweep, city officials said they plan to deescalate the situation.
“If they do that, then I'm hopeful through conversation and dialogue we can help appeal to their interests,” Stover said. “Until that happens, we will simply move to another area and keep cleaning elsewhere."
The question of where all of the homeless people will move to remains unanswered.
“They’re breaking up our family,” said a homeless woman who goes by 'Mom.' “We look out for each other. I’m really worried about where all of these people will go.”
Residents in the Lents neighborhood, which is near the most populated portion of the corridor, say the city's plan could push even more homeless people into backyards. 'Mom' said she plans to stay in a friend's yard and considers herself lucky to have that option.
Neighbor Mary Lou Bonham said she understands why neighbors are frustrated by the homeless, but she believes the sweep is not helping the issue.
“We see this as a failure really of our city and the systems providing a place people can legally go because they don't just disappear when you sweep them. They go somewhere and further destabilizing doesn't solve any problems. It exacerbates them,” she said.
Staff at the mayor's office said they know there's not enough shelter space right now and all shelters are currently full. Affordable housing for people with low or no income is also full, with years-long waitlists at most facilities.
For now city officials hope people will camp in more low-impact areas. A spokeswoman with the mayor's office said the city has not identified any areas outside of shelters where people can stay.