Multiple reports of gun-toting campers have scared off contractors from Laurelhurst Park, police records show — and city leaders say the situation is rapidly becoming untenable.
Within the past 14 days, Portland Police Bureau officers took reports of at least three incidents involving guns, including a shot fired from inside a tent, an unhoused resident who was "pistol whipped" by another camper and several men seen loading and holding guns in plain view, according to a police log obtained by the Tribune.
"The situation at Laurelhurst Park has recently devolved into one that is unsafe and unhealthy for everyone involved and we are no longer able to safely serve the unhoused community near the park," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty, Carmen Rubio, Dan Ryan and Mingus Mapps said in a statement July 27.
There is perhaps no better illustration of the push and tug over the city's response to homelessness than at Laurelhurst — a prized park in one Portland's wealthiest eastside neighborhoods that some say is marred by the sprawl of tents and cars clustering along the leafy streets that border the greenspace.
The issue reached a boiling point July 26, when city leaders announced that 72-hour eviction notices had been posted that could clear the camps as soon as Thursday, July 29. In the past, however, clean-up crews have balked at sweeping the camp when facing cadres of activists, who say evictions are indefensible when there is nowhere else for campers to go.
"We are aware of the decision by all City Commissioners to sweep Laurelhurst Park," said Stop The Sweeps PDX. "The basis for sweeping is due to an 'incident' we have heard very conflicting accounts of coming from the city and contractors and have thus far been unverifiable by residents at Laurelhurst Park."
A spokeswoman for the city's Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program says it has paid Rapid Response Bio Clean nearly $150,000 to remove trash from Laurelhurst between May 2020 and July of this year.
"These costs do not include weekly or bi-weekly cleaning performed by Clean Start PDX," who don't itemize by location, the spokeswoman added. "Any expenses incurred by Portland Parks & Recreation, Portland Fire & Rescue, the Portland Police Bureau and the Portland Bureau of Transportation are not included in this figure."
'Liveability' slate takes helm at neighborhood association
Board elections for the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association typically draw 50 to 75 voters. This year more than 700 voted in the election.
T.J. Browning, chair of the LNA's safety committee, took a seat on the board in May alongside the group's new president and vice president, each safety committee members who ran on a "liveability" slate.
"The complete lack of enformcement of laws, city code, their own criteria for sweeping — the city has never followed any of this," Browning said in an interview. "So this culture of lawlessness has just flourished, and it's created this environment that's dangerous to the campers, the park users and the people living nearby."
Browning says residents have seen everything from drug use to sexual acts performed out in the open, as well as worsening air quality from campfires and dangerous encounters between children and those who are mentally ill.
She says the city has quietly stopped scheduling summer children's programming in the park because of safety concerns.
While Laurelhust was cleared last November and again in the New Year, most campers ended up moving to Sunnyside park and school. Browning, who believes the issue is much more complicated than a 'housed vs. unhoused' narrative, says somewhere between 50 and 70 people currently sleep in the parkway or nearby.
"The neighborhood has been advocating for sanctioned camps and sanctioned parking for probably close to a year now," she said. "We have campers, they need somewhere to be safe and secure. But it can't be like this."
Unhoused residents, however described the area as a safe haven.
"We don't know where they expect us to go," a camper who gave his name as Salamander Bass told KOIN 6 News, a media partner of the Portland Tribune. "Best thing we can do is cross the street."
Another camper told The Portland Mercury they'd never seen any firearms at the camp.
Guns drawn at camp, police say
One provider of portable toilets pulled out of Laurelhurst Park July 19 after a contracted sanitation worker witnessed campers drawing guns during some sort of confrontation, per police records.
In an email headlined "Pulling 2 Units out of Laurelhurst Park immediately," United Site Services manager Larry VanStiphout told City Hall that the company did not want to stop servicing units but could no longer do so safely.
"Nearby users have continued to defecate on the unit and not in the tank," wrote VanStiphout. "Additionally, cars block the units constantly, and on multiple occasions the service tech has been blocked in by locals. I have no idea (what's) behind that rationale."
A different contractor is now providing five toilets on site, at a cost of $650 per week via CARES Act dollars, according to HUCIRP.
A police log seen by the Tribune says the worker was "in close proximity" as one unhoused person pointed a gun at another person in the camp on July 17. The showdown escalated after a third person emerged from an RV while holding an "assault rifle."
Two other incidents were reported within the past two weeks:
• On July 16, a nearby house dweller saw a man loading a handgun and another man "stalking' through the camp with a rifle near Southeast 37th Avenue between Stark and Oak streets, according to the call log. Photographs of the incident were provided to police, who say they have confirmed the identity of at least one of the gunmen. City officials declined to release copies of the photos, saying "the report is locked due to pending investigations and safety concerns for unhoused and housed witnesses."
• On July 22, campers contacted patrol officers to report "abuse, threats, weapons possession and assaults" by another resident within the past month. That included the pistol-whipping incident and a shots fired call.
Police say they continue to actively investigate all three incidents. No arrests have been made at this time.
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