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Some neighbors believed burglaries were connected to nearby homeless camps

PHOTO COURTESY OF MAX LEE KWAI - South Burlingame neighbors cleared brush around nearby overpasses to make the areas less attractive to homeless campers.For better or for worse, Max Lee Kwai and his neighbors decided they were on their own.

It was late August, and burglaries had quickly escalated in the usually quiet South Burlingame neighborhood. Cars were broken into at night, and homes and garages were broken into during the day. Several neighbors shared the incidents on the neighborhood social network

And then Lee Kwai noticed something different on his walking route by the neighborhood green space and overpasses.

“I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and it turned out to be a lawn mower and a whole bunch of packages from people’s doorsteps,” he said. The items were in the middle of a homeless camper’s site that included a tent, personal belongings and dozens of hypodermic needles scattered over the ground.

Lee Kwai spent the rest of the day pulling items out of the camp and posting them on Nextdoor for neighbors to claim. He started making daily trips to the green space and discovered seven camps, each containing items he believed to have been stolen.

Unsanctioned camping is against the law in Portland, but Lee Kwai said he and his neighbors didn’t believe that the City or the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) — which manages the area where the campers settled — would clear out the space soon enough.

“(The crime level) was worrisome to the point where we thought violence was just around the corner,” he said. “We as a neighborhood felt that it was on us to deal with this issue.”

Within a week, the neighbors were using Nextdoor to organize work parties to clean up the camps themselves — Lee Kwai said about 25-30 got involved. Some called ODOT — with no response, according to Lee Kwai — and others picked up trash and cleared brush to make the area more visible and less attractive to campers.

The local A-Boy Supply store donated spray paint to cover graffiti under the overpasses, and Market of Choice offered dumpster space for the items neighbors were clearing out of the camp, Lee Kwai said.

One by one, he said, the campers moved out on their own.

In all his interactions with the campers, Lee Kwai said he tried to be polite but upfront about the items he found there and the problems the neighborhood was experiencing.

“I’m not the type of person who would go mess with a homeless person’s camp if it was just a camp,” he said. “Every single one of these camps had dirty needles and stolen items. … My issue is not with homelessness, it’s with the criminal element that comes from some people.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF MAX LEE KWAI - South Burlingame residents discovered seven homeless camps near their neighborhood in August.‘Let police handle this’

The group of neighbors cleaned up the camps in less than two weeks, and they’ve noticed a drop in crime ever since, Lee Kwai said.

“I’m really proud of my neighborhood for coming together and addressing it,” he said. “I think one of the keys to our success was recognizing early on that we were on our own.”

But at ODOT, Public Information Officer Don Hamilton wasn’t so sure.

For one thing, ODOT staff members had noticed the camp sites in the area, he said, and had posted signs in early September to let campers know that crews would be coming through to clean out the space in 10-19 days.

When ODOT arrived in mid-September, Hamilton said, staff members discovered that the brush around the camps had been cleared, but that many of the belongings taken out of the camps had been left nearby on the sidewalk.

“We don’t want to encourage them taking the law into their own hands on this,” Hamilton said of the neighbors’ work, noting that anyone who does landscaping on public property needs a permit. But, he added, “we appreciate that they did a really good job.”

ODOT reposted signs in the area and Hamilton said crews would return in late September or early October to remove the belongings from the sidewalk. When asked about the remaining items, Lee Kwai said he and his fellow neighbors were still in the process of cleaning out the area.

Hamilton acknowledged that the camps are part of a complicated picture. ODOT has multiple staff members dealing with camps full-time, he said, as well as a storage facility where personal belongings pulled from camps are held for 30 or more days to give people time to claim them.

He said he sympathizes with the homeless community, as well as with neighbors who may face problems as a result of unsanctioned camping.

“I understand how the neighbors feel about this,” he said. “I think that their best bet is to talk to police and let police handle this.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF MAX LEE KWAI - Using spray paint donated by A-Boy Supply, neighbors covered up graffiti to improve the areas underneath local overpasses.Broken windows

In fact, Lee Kwai did contact a member of the Portland Police Bureau early on — Officer Andrew Caspar, who has patrolled Southwest Portland for the past 14 years. But Lee Kwai said he felt police officers’ hands were tied on the issue as well.

Caspar said he visited the area soon after hearing about the camps, and he talked with a man who was sleeping in a tent there. He discovered that the man had spent four years in a Nevada State Penitentiary for burglary and had a warrant out of Nevada for burglary as well.

“But the warrant was non-extraditable, meaning (he could only be taken) into custody in the state of issue for this particular case,” Caspar said via email.

He said many of the camps were filled with items from previous campers over the years, and most of the items, such as camp chairs, blankets and tents, couldn’t be traced as “stolen” because they didn't have a serial number listed.

Caspar said officers can only “trespass” — or move out — campers with the consent of the local property owner, whether they’re on state, county, city or private land. While some businesses grant “trespass agreements” so that police can patrol an area and arrest unwanted trespassers if need be, that wasn’t in place on this property, he said.

Plus, he said, the process generally gets extended because so many parties are involved.

“All of our new trespass (or) transient issues are fielded by a team of mental health care, police, city, county, state and miscellaneous advocates,” Caspar said. “With more people with (a) finger in the pie, it takes longer for issue resolution.”

Caspar said the neighbors never contacted him about their cleanup work — it just happened. But after years patrolling the neighborhood, that came as no surprise to him.

“The reason crime is so low in this area," he said, "is largely due to the (fact) that (the residents) all care about the area and react to problems quickly.”

Caspar said many South Burlingame residents attend the neighborhood meetings where he gives a monthly activity report and discusses solutions to crime and safety issues in the community. He pointed to the “broken windows” model of policing, which theorizes that disorder — such as a broken window — can lead to fear and withdrawal in a community, according to the Center for Evidence-Based Policing.

Police officers can disrupt the cycle of disorder and chaos, Caspar said, by encouraging community members to take greater responsibility for their neighborhood by cleaning up trash, fixing broken structures and looking out for one another.

Caspar said the model doesn’t just apply to police officers, and South Burlingame is one example of community members taking the initiative to improve the area’s cleanliness, safety and livability year-round — and particularly in cleaning up the camps.

“The credit goes to the neighborhood,” he said. “All was done well.”

Contact Kelsey O’Halloran at 503-636-1281 ext. 101 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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