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Southeast neighborhood association calls on city to stop homeless sweeps
A neighborhood in southeast Portland is calling on the city of Portland to stop "sweeping" homeless camps within its geographical boundaries.
The board of the Montavilla Neighborhood Association adopted a biting resolution on behalf of the rest of the neighborhood, first reported by the Portland Mercury on Tuesday, calling on the city to stop sweeps in that area. The neighborhood hugs Interstate 205 on the east side, Interstate 84 on the north, and Southeast 76th Avenue on the west side.
The resolution says that "sweeps, as a policy of addressing homelessness, has failed and is not achieving positive outcomes for housed or houseless Portlanders and wastes taxpayer dollars" and don't reduce homelessness.
The resolution was posted to the Montavilla Neighborhood Association website with an accompanying blog post, which called sweeps inhumane and also pointed to the 10 percent increase in the homeless population observed in the 2017 federally mandated Point-in-Time count.
'We have an obligation'
The mayor's office says they have an obligation to address the 20-50 notifications that they receive a week through its One Point of Contact system, which logs complaints from Portland residents about homeless camps.
"We have an obligation to those residents," says Michael Cox, Mayor Ted Wheeler's spokesman. Although he said that right now, there's actually not a lot of active camping happening in Montavilla.
"We prioritize which camps we're going to clean based on factors, like whether there's environmental concerns, threats to public health and threats to public safety," he said.
The neighborhood resolution has three points: it urges the city of Portland to stop further sweeps of camps in its neighborhood "which may be unconstitutional and be human rights violations"; urges the Portland City council to convene a meeting of stakeholders to include neighborhood associations, neighborhood coalitions, the housing bureau, Joint Office of Homeless Services, advocacy groups and others to "develop a responsible five-year plan to address homelessness by allocating limited taxpayer dollars on long-term solutions" including shelter beds, transitional housing and mental health and substance abuse services; and calls on other neighborhood associations within the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Coalition to join their association in encouraging these efforts.
The A Home for Everyone task force, a joint committee of local government and the city of Gresham, and A Home Forward, was created to address some of these issues, such as shelter and housing.
The Southeast Uplift neighborhood coalition, which oversees 20 neighborhood associations in that quadrant, has not taken a stance on the issue yet.
According to Anne Dufay, executive director (although retiring at the end of next month), the coalition will be able to discuss it at their next board meeting on July 10.
She said that, moving forward, it will depend on what Montavilla Neighborhood Association asks from the coalition, such as writing a letter of support.
How 'sweeps' work
Homeless advocates have been urging local government to stop homeless sweeps for years, calling them inhumane and displacing them when there's not much alternative as affordable housing remains in short supply. Many homeless people will move when asked, but simply find another spot to camp nearby.
In response to the neighborhood calling sweeps inhumane and a violation of human rights, Cox said that the idea that people are just being "swept" out of an area is a misconception.
"We operate under the Anderson agreement, which prescribes exactly how we can go about cleaning camps. We can't do camp sweeps, that's a misconception. We have posting requirements — we go there and connect folks to options around shelter and services," Cox said.
The Anderson agreement is a process that came by way of the Anderson v. Portland lawsuit in 2009, which settled in 2012. Part of the settlement requires the city to post ahead of a cleanup, and then service providers are notified. City cleanups give campers between 24 hours and a week to pack up.
Cox also noted that much camping in Montavilla happens on Oregon Department of Transportation property, and that it's a multi-jurisdictional issue.
The multi-jurisdictional problem has also been an issue in the Southeast neighborhood of Lents, just south of Montavilla, where large camps have sprawled over a number of different government properties, including the city of Portland (Bureau of Transportation), ODOT, TriMet and even Multnomah County property.
The most recent campsite report through the One Point of Contact system for June 12-18 noted 559 reports of campsites throughout the city, with 133 of those reports on ODOT properties and eight on Union Pacific Railway property.
Cox said that ODOT operates under a court mandate for their camp cleanups as well, but that it's different from the Anderson agreement. The agencies, he said, are attempting to coordinate on the issue of homeless camps sprawling over different jurisdictions.
"We've brought together partners from other jurisdictions, both city bureaus and state agencies to work through these issues to get something of a unified approach," Cox said.
It's unsure how much collectively the different agencies are spending on homeless camp cleanups. However, for comparison, one of the largest homeless camps the city has seen, that along the Springwater Corridor Trail in Southeast Portland last year where hundreds of campers dwelled, cost about $130,000 for contracted services when it was cleared out last summer. An additional $3,500 was spent on materials, like garbage bags, bee control and signage, according to the Office of Management and Finance.
'The same campers come right back'
So what exactly can the Montavilla Neighborhood Association resolution do?
According to Paul Leistner, neighborhood program coordinator the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, "it has no formal authority. It's just persuasive in the sense they have sent this on, they can express themselves to the decision makers, but it doesn't bind anybody." He added that there's sometimes confusion over a board taking a stance — that it doesn't mean that all residents of the neighborhood or even the neighborhood association agree with it. He compared it to if an editorial board wrote an op-ed in the newspaper.
"It's raising an awareness of an issue … if they're seeing negative impacts because of that policy, it's keeping in line with what neighborhoods do if they feel a policy isn't having good results in their community," Leistner, who has studied the city's neighborhood system for the last 40 years, said.
In a statement by the Montavilla Neighborhood Association board to the Portland Tribune via Facebook, the group said they stand by their statements despite Cox's response that the city has an obligation to respond to complaints lodged by their residents:
"We believe the city council has a duty to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars and sweeps are ineffective. The camps come back weeks or months later. We need long-term solutions, which homeless advocacy groups have been saying for years. … If the mayor's sweeps policy was working and connecting people to services, then the same campers wouldn't be returning. Even the most vocal opponents of our resolution, which is a small number of neighbors, acknowledge that the same campers come right back."