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‘It impedes our freedom’: Tents and garbage block ADA access on some Portland streets

The city’s Street Services Coordination Center prioritizes removing homeless camps that make it dangerous for people with disabilities to commute.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Refrigerators, boards of plywood and furniture block a sidewalk on the corner of Northeast 14th Avenue and Weidler Street.

“They’ve got washers, dryers, stoves, a tent,” listed Pauline Long, who lives in the neighborhood.

Long is 66 years old and uses a wheelchair. About four months ago, a homeless campsite moved onto the sidewalk near her apartment. Since then, she hasn’t been able to get by.

“There’s no room. If you’re in a wheelchair, you need at least to safely get by at least a three-foot path," she said.

The American With Disabilities Act (ADA) federally mandates that sidewalks be clear and at least three-feet wide, especially for those who use wheelchairs. It also requires communities to maintain sidewalks in accordance with that law.

According to a 2018 federal ruling, the city of Portland cannot prosecute homeless people for sleeping on the streets if they have nowhere else to go.

However, the city’s Street Services Coordination Center prioritizes removing camps that block ADA access.

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“They now have taken the street since March. Nobody’s done anything so they’re just going to sit there and make it worse and worse,” said Long, who has reported the camp to the city numerous times.

The city declined to talk with KGW but said camps in Long’s neighborhood were posted for removal Wednesday. That’s about four months after they moved in.

“Just trying to eat and survive. All I’m trying to do,” said Tom, 62, who lives in a tent on 14th Avenue and Weidler Street with his girlfriend and son.

“It feels like to me that she’s picking on us because she sees that we’re living on the street,” he said of Long’s complaints.

Tom grew up in Portland and has been to prison 19 times.

“All this stuff that’s on the block here, I carried. It’s not stolen, it's stuff that was on the garbage or near the garbage and I’m going to turn it in for metal so I can get some money,” he said pointing to a pile of chairs, grills and refrigerators.

“I understand their situation,” added Long. “We’re trying to work with them in the area, but if they’re not willing to work with us and give us our access to the sidewalk, I shouldn’t have to go on the street for them and risk my life.”

“It’s very scary and it’s making us feel very limited,” said Marja Byers, who is legally blind and uses a guide dog.  

Byers said she oftentimes has to walk in the street to avoid tents and garbage.

“Which means my dog is out closest to oncoming cars and I’m not willing to risk my guide dog," she said.

Even when the sidewalks are cleared, Byers said they're not dependable.

“Some camps get cleaned up. People got to go somewhere so it’s kind of ongoing but where it’s going to pop up next is a mystery … Part of what I would like city officials to understand is how much this impedes our freedom," Byers said.

The city is asking people to report blocked sidewalks through PDX Reporter. They said they look into every report of a blocked sidewalk.

KGW reached out to several disability rights organizations in regard to this story. None of them wanted to talk publicly about this issue.

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