Many Portlanders split over handling of homeless camping
Homeless camping is becoming increasingly controversial throughout Portland, and reaction in the Montavilla neighborhood symbolizes the split among city residents.
The Montavilla Neighborhood Association board has provoked much conversation and reaction in the city with its resolution to stop homeless sweeps within that neighborhood's geographical boundaries.
Calling them inhumane, not a help to the city's homeless crisis, and a waste of taxpayer dollars, the June 20 resolution outlined several points, with a call to the city to create better long-term solutions while asking other neighborhoods to join their effort.
However, some Montavillans have voiced disagreement with the board, including starting a petition, citing safety and livability concerns, such as needles, human waste out in the open, and garbage.
"I don't think it's right to say we don't want any police intervention at all," says Evelyn Macpherson, a Montavilla resident who lives next to the neighborhood park. She says she's experienced things like homeless people wandering on their property and leaving needles at the park where her children play.
The neighborhood association has declined interviews from the Tribune, but the neighborhood association president, Jonnie Shaver, was interviewed on OPB's "Think Out Loud" on July 7, defending their call of sweeps being unconstitutional, citing American Civil Liberties Union cases in Florida, Colorado and in Clark County, Washington.
"The city cannot handle the homeless crisis alone. As a neighborhood, we have a unique opportunity to find community and a way that we can address homelessness that will be beneficial to the most people in our neighborhood," she told the interviewer. The neighborhood association has said that sweeps often just displace people, moving them one place to another.
However, the city has responded by saying they have an obligation to address the 20-50 complaints they receive a week for that particular neighborhood through the One Point of Contact system.
The system collects reports of homeless campsites, including those sleeping in vehicles, through its PDX Reporter app online or on a smartphone. It's managed by the city's Office of Management and Finance.
Michael Cox, Mayor Ted Wheeler's spokesman has defended the city's process of cleaning up, saying that they are required to notify campers 24 hours to a week to pack up and contact social services, as part of a previous lawsuit settlement called the Anderson agreement, in which campers accused the city of criminalizing homelessness.
He acknowledged confusion stemming from camps that sprawl over different city and state-owned land, and that agencies are trying to find a way to better work together.
While reports of campsites all over Multnomah County are funneled through the One Point of Contact system, agencies handle camp cleanups differently, and it's unclear whether a social service agency is contacted every time and for every type of situation of homelessness, be it someone living in their car or a large tent encampment.
The most recent city homeless camp report for June 26-July 2 noted 518 new campsites, with 137 of those on Oregon Department of Transportation properties and five on Union Pacific Railway property. One-hundred and thirty one of the reports were people living in vehicles, with 12 campers on private property.
While the city works under the Anderson agreement to clean up camps, Oregon Department of Transportation works under their own settlement — stemming from the case Tucker vs. ODOT requiring adequate notice before a sweep.
Denis Theriault, spokesman for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, acknowledged that city agencies are putting more energy in coordination, but wasn't sure what the threshold is to contact social service agencies when a sweep is occurring.
"I don't know if it happens every time. I don't know if there's a threshold. I know there's a lot of intentional information sharing right now to make sure people are connected to services," he said. "I think the thing to think about, if somebody's engaging in criminal behavior, people need to be held accountable, no matter their housing status." He also said he thinks its important to step up coordination so that "the community response to livability issues don't jeopardize neighbors' (homeless folks) access to services that will actually end their homelessness, which is their housing, case management, rent assistance and shelter."
Adam Stein, a member of the Montavilla Business Association who owns the building that houses Montavilla Brew Works, agreed.
"The camps themselves, if we could take care of the impacts on the community, we would be better able to discuss this issue and find solutions," Stein says. He was at a July 10 Montavilla neighborhood meeting about the resolution, where conversations became heated over needles and human waste. "If the (livability) issues can be addressed, then the volume can come down," he says.
The neighborhood association is working to get more sharps containers. Multnomah County approved $30,000 in its budget to expand its Healthy Streets needle dropbox program in May. Currently, only two bins for used syringes exist near the waterfront. The program plans to add three more bins around the city.
The Montavilla Neighborhood Association is holding a town hall meeting from 10 a.m. to noon July 29, at the Montavilla United Methodist Church, 232 S.E. 80th Avenue, but they're not considering it a public meeting. Attendees must register for tickets, with priority given to Montavilla residents, and according to the event description, media will not be allowed access and video and audio recording isn't permitted.
Here's what some agencies have to say about how they conduct cleanups:
City of Portland
"Sweeps and cleanups are not the same thing. The City of Portland cleans up campsites. We do not do sweeps. I don't know if there is a legal definition, but 'sweeps' are generally seen as being disruptive, forcing people to move, and sometimes with no notice," says Jen Clodius, of the Office of Management and Finance. That office handles the campsite reports. She says the city works with people, including support services, the joint office as well as campers themselves.
"That process, mandated in the settlement of the Anderson v. Portland lawsuit, requires the City to post notification at a camp before cleanup," she says. "I seem to recall that during the Springwater Corridor cleanup last year, teams worked with campers for almost a month before the cleanup finally occurred."
Union Pacific Railway
"First of all, if someone reports it to us specifically, we have a 24-hour respond center. That number and signs for that information are located at every crossing. But then we have our own police department — the Union Pacific Railway Police. They were with local agencies in all major cities that our network runs through to basically handle those types of situations," says Justin E. Jacobs, spokesperson of the agency. He said, typically, officials will go out and make contact to advise them that it's private property, and give them a warning to vacate. He says that it's routine that they get calls about "transient encampments on our properties."
"Now, if they're doing like a citywide cleanup, we try to be good partners and partner with the agencies helping with those cleanup efforts," he says. He said, "Anyone near railways with huge freight trains, it's more about safety."
Portland Bureau of Transportation
"It's a little different than the city. Ours deals with personal property cleanups. They have their Anderson agreement, we have our settlement," says Ted Miller, maintenance and operations manager for ODOT.
He said they have two different notices, depending on the area. A longer notice, 10-19 days, is posted on "prohibited activities" areas, or land that are generally open to the public but don't allow camping, campfires and activities associated with camping. The other notice is between 24-hours and seven days, for land that is strictly no trespassing.
"We don't deal with people. We don't call them sweeps," he says, adding that they work closely with Portland police. They notify the city through the PDX Reporter app. "They know where we are, they get GPS coordinates and opportunities to provide social services if they're available."
Agency spokesman Don Hamilton added, "ODOT is not a law enforcement agency. We don't have any authority to force anyone to leave. When we are involved, we will ask them to leave and very often they do. We certainly don't rip somebody's sleeping bag from underneath them or anything like that."
He says they'll store people's belongings for up to 30 days.
Portland Police Bureau
Bureau spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson says Portland police gets involved when someone refuses to leave, if there's evidence left behind of a crime, or safety issues such as people being violent.
"But we are not the ones removing property, we are not the ones directly running the show if you will because these are pretty complex — some are on private property or public property like Portland Bureau of Transportation, or Oregon Department of Transportation or Portland Parks Bureau. So, the One Point of Contact through the mayor's office is sort of the catch all that we work through, when we are needed to be there. If it's a property cleanup, for example, there's no police function."
He said that "our role is actually a lot more limited than people realize, but we're just the most visible part of the role." He says that some people have the "idea that it's 25 police officers showing up with dump trucks, people walk through and we arrest everyone and dump their stuff in the garbage, it's not that way at all," he says.
Simpson says when a cleanup happens, people go out, give homeless folks pamphlets with information, including resources like JOIN, and identify what's property and what's garbage.
"Our goal isn't to arrest people. If there's a crime, we have to arrest people, but our goal is to push people toward services," he says.
He adds that police response to homelessness is a "hidden cost" compared to the rest of the millions bugeted for homelessness. "It's not a line item in the budget. You go to a call for service … people fighting, neighborhood complaints, it's everyday. And those are big hidden costs."
Simpson said that PBOT's parking enforcement deals with similar issues with homeless folks who live out of their cars and mobile homes.
"It's just part of your job," he says.
Read a previous Tribune story about Montavilla's resolution: portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/363870-244646-southeast-neighborhood-association-calls-on-city-to-stop-homeless-sweeps