PORTLAND, Ore. — Let’s talk trash.
Interstate 84 between I-205 and I-5 is one of the most-traveled stretches of highway for people coming into downtown Portland, and that's not necessarily a good thing. I-84 is littered with trash, drug paraphernalia and homeless camps.
Some say it's making a horrible impression on anyone who visits the city.
One of those critics is Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who says one of the first things visitors to Portland see is the trash along I-84. About 8.5 tons of garbage can be found along the interstate right now.
Wheeler is trying to find a balance between getting homeless folks the help they need and providing the expectation of a clean city for the people who live in and visit.
"This isn't us. That cannot be us. That will not be us," Wheeler said.
From the hillsides of I-84, it looks like the city dump, but it’s actually what people see as they drive into the city. It makes a person wonder what kind of impression city leaders are giving to visitors who land at Portland International Airport and make their way into the downtown area.
We're anxious to show off our civic pride, but the amount of trash is hard to ignore. Some of us are used to it, but for people who don't come into the city that often, or for tourists who visit Portland, it's overwhelming.
Visitors to Portland are taking notice. Erica and her friend Artella are visiting Portland from California. Erica told KGW the trash scattered along I-84 is hard to ignore.
"It doesn't surprise me honestly. We go around everywhere and we see trash everywhere. It’s kind of sad, it’s really disappointing," Erica said.
Artella agreed: "I mean, that's like mother nature. We’ve got to take care of the earth. And she provides for us, so we should be providing for her, rather than tearing her down."
Homeless camps and trash line the hillsides of I-84. Hypodermic needles are everywhere. There are buckets for human waste, propane tanks and thousands of pounds of garbage.
Driving in both directions of I-84, you can see homeless camps at the Lloyd Center exit, as well as 33rd Avenue, Cesar Chavez Boulevard, 47th Avenue, 68th Avenue, 74th Avenue and on Halsey Street.
Wheeler said the drive is disturbing to him.
"Listen, people in this community, they expect the community to be clean. They expect it to be pristine," he said. "I find it jarring when I come back from a trip and I drive down I-84 and I see garbage strewn all over the place."
Over the years, clean-up efforts along I-84 have been a cycle of repetitiveness. The garbage gets cleaned up, the homeless camps return and the garbage piles up again. It used to be a cleanup effort that happened once every two years. But now, the cleanups happen four times every year, at least.
"We average about 8.5 tons of trash per cleanup," said Tiffany Gates, an associate solid waste planner for Metro. Gates said they've cleaned up 32 tons of waste since January 2017. That's 64,000 pounds of garbage along I-84.
"We get a lot of shopping carts, a lot of trash, a lot of needles. We get the same things over and over again, and we clean them up and remove them. Flying into the airport then going downtown, it is very visible," Gates said.
Wheeler said the area of I-84 that gets the most trash and homeless camping is challenging, because several government agencies have jurisdiction. The railroad is there, along with the Oregon Department of Transportation, Multnomah County, the City of Portland and Metro.
"You have to organize all of those different entities just to pick up the trash," he said.
So why not do something to keep campers out of that area and prevent the tens of thousands of pounds of trash from piling up? It turns out, that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Fencing is going up along the south side of the interstate, though Wheeler said very specific legal requirements can prevent keeping people completely out.
"If there are people actually living in the right of way, we have legal requirements that we have to post it. We bring social workers in and then ultimately if they choose to leave, but they leave stuff behind, we're responsible for bagging and tagging it and holding it for 30 days," Wheeler said.
The mayor said they're doing even more. The city has passed legislation and entered into an agreement with ODOT to take over many rights of way.
"I think it’s very important to keep it clean," Wheeler said.
Visitors to Portland, like Artella, seem to agree with Wheeler.
"Portland is so beautiful regardless, but you know anything can be done to improve things," she said.
In addition, the many governmental agencies involved are working together on livability in the city and especially along I-84. The clean-up starts immediately, April 2, beginning at the river and working east until April 4. It’s an intergovernmental effort, led by Metro. Tiffany Gates said every agency has a specific role.
"We partner with other people, other agencies that have outreach groups so we can try to first, do the first step of what do you need to get help and then we're going in and clean up the trash," she said.
Wheeler said he’s committed to cleaning-up the trash, not just along I-84 but throughout the city of Portland.
"That is what Portland's known for. We are one of the most livable communities in the United States," he said.
Metro also has a useful online feature called the digital dashboard that allows users to report illegal trash and dumping on public property. The report can be tracked to see its progress. Metro’s average response time over the past two weeks is one business day.
To report illegal dumping, call 503-234-3000 or visit this website.