Houseless people are residents; treat them accordingly
On Sept. 25, without regard for the health and safety of homeless campers, an ad hoc group of vigilantes — The Coalition to Protect 1000 Acres (Facebook) — began Illegally removing campsites from Thousand Acres Park on the Sandy River.
Led by Troutdale City Councilor Alison Caswell the group used a Bobcat and other tools to collect and pile the remains
of 11 camps they believed were unoccupied.
The Multnomah County Sheriff responded to investigate and stop the ransacking. Testimony from four homeless community members alleges that possessions were also taken from occupied camps. The report goes on to point out that other members of the community were sifting through the pile in an effort to identify and reclaim property caught up in the illegal sweep.
Councilor Caswell was contacted by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office. In the sheriff's report, Caswell admitted to being a leader of the group and the sweep. Despite being told she had likely broken laws and opened herself and her group to civil cases, Caswell indicated her group would be back.
Caswell expressed her belief that the homeless should not be able to camp on state lands. She went on to say that when "they" begin paying taxes is when the homeless should get a voice.
Caswell has no legal right to perform sweeps. While Thousand Acres is within the Troutdale city limits, it is state-owned land. Homelessness is not illegal. Camping is not illegal. Camping is protected by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court's ruling in "Martin v. Boise." Cities cannot make camping illegal unless they already offer alternative services to accommodate the campers. Camping is not a longterm solution for mitigating homelessness. Cruelty, lawlessness and intimidation are also not solutions for ending homelessness.
While camping is not a solution to chronic homelessness, it is the interim choice for many houseless people. In 2018, the U.S. Office of Housing and Urban Development published a the report, "Understanding Encampments of People Experiencing Homelessness."
In the report is a list of the most common reasons people camp. Those include the supply of shelter beds being insufficient to meet the need, restrictions at shelters that might cause the separation from a family member or pet, shelter entrance and exit schedules that don't coincide with work schedules, concerns about the security of personal belongings and concerns for personal health and the transmission of germs in open congregate settings like a shelter.
Camping in the Thousand Acres park, while not a permanent solution, does allow the 34 to 44 adults who routinely live there to come and go as they please or need to in order to keep a work schedule. It allows them to stay linked to a partner or pet. The space allows for distancing and privacy. Residents of the camp have also formed their own governance structure which keeps goods secured and the area mostly trash free.
Having walked the trails in the area I found the camp to be unobtrusive and not an impediment to safe recreation. In addition to privacy and security, the forested area also provides a break to the weather elements. And, unlike tents on a street, provides distance between the homed and homeless. This distance leads to fewer adverse meetings between the homed and unsheltered.
Multnomah County is looking to open a 50-bed emergency shelter in Troutdale. Adding capacity could decrease camping. Multnomah County-owned land in Troutdale has been conveyed to Home Forward to build more permanent, affordable housing units. We hope more resources are on the way to East Multnomah County via the Home For Everyone bond allocations. In the meantime, it is far better to respect the privacy and dignity of our unsheltered East County residents. Allowing them to camp in a well-maintained, covered and private area is a viable short term solution.
Working with the Multnomah County Sheriff's Homeless Outreach Team I have learned that the residents of Thousand Acres lived in our East County communities when they were homed. They are our residents. It is incumbent on elected officials to serve all of their residents.
Serving them does not include illegally destroying their temporary homes or their personal property. Serving them means ensuring they have adequate protections until they can find a temporary shelter that meets their needs and ultimately find a permanent home.
Scott Harden is the mayor of Wood Village.
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