City struggles to take action as homeless camps multiply

The camping is occurring along North Greeley Avenue beneath Interstate Avenue

Hazelnut Grove, a homeless camp on Greeley Avenue in Portland, Nov. 11, 2015 (KOIN)
Hazelnut Grove, a homeless camp on Greeley Avenue in Portland, Nov. 11, 2015 (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Disputes over fast-growing homeless camps in North Portland are complicating efforts by neighborhood leaders to develop a citywide response to the issue.

The Overlook Neighborhood Association has accused the mayor’s office of breaking promises to limit the number of campers along North Greeley Street below Interstate Avenue.

The association called a special meeting for Wednesday, Dec. 16, to discuss the situation. It will be held at 6:30 p.m. at the Historic Kenton Firehouse, 8105 N. Brandon Ave.

The association previously sent a letter to the City Council on Thursday, Dec. 3, requesting the camp be moved. “Although the original intent was for a small campsite that would be self-regulating within a code of conduct, that did not last,” the letter said.

The request was rejected by Josh Alpert, Mayor Charlie Hales’ chief of staff. He says the overcrowding is caused by a second camp that was not part of the original agreement and needs to be moved, although some neighbors say the city has been too slow to respond.

“There’s a feeling out there that City Hall isn’t keeping its promise on homeless camps, and that’s going to make it difficult to talk to other neighborhood associations about the issue,” said Tom Griffin-Valade, executive director of North Portland Neighborhood Services, the city office that works with neighborhood associations serving North Portland.

Griffin-Valade made his comment during a Dec. 10 meeting of the chairs and directors of all the city-funded neighborhood district coalitions. The group is planning to ask the associations what they would support to help address the housing crisis, including possibly identifying locations for camps in other parts of the city.

But the group is concerned the associations will not be willing to participate in such discussions if they believe City Hall won’t regulate the camps. No decisions were made at Thursday’s meeting, and the group will take the issue up again when it meets in January.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who was at the meeting, said she has not asked the associations or districts to identify potential sites for camps, but said the city should provide services to those that exist.

Brief history of camps

The camping is occurring on a slice of city-owned land along North Greeley Avenue beneath Interstate Avenue. The first formal camp established there is called Hazelnut Grove. According to camper Raven Justice, the area was known for its community garden, owned by Sisters of the Road. It also was frequented by a few drug users and campers.

Justice said he and some friends from the Occupy Portland movement have helped the camp grow since May, establishing a code of conduct to keep out heroin and methamphetamine users. They set the limit at 25 residents, although on a late-November morning the official count was 27.

Community support includes a Facebook fundraising page and volunteers who donate food and supplies to build shelters, including wooden pallets and tarps, as well as nylon tents and awnings. The camp now has a fire circle, two gas generators for electricity, and water from the community garden’s white, plastic tanks.

On a recent morning, four boxes containing trays of supermarket sushi that had just been delivered sat on the ground. A father led two tweens into the camp bearing blankets and clothes.

Although some neighbors have complained about an increase in crime in recent months, Justice said the camp has reduced it.

“The owner of the house said it was the first time in six years he hadn’t had a break-in,” said Justice, gesturing to the top of the bluff. “People had been stealing from the house and leaving needles. We moved in and cut the crap off.”

Two very different camps

Next to Hazelnut Grove, a bigger camp not governed by the same rules is growing rapidly. Nicknamed “Forgotten Realms,” it is less organized, although it has a chore board and a kitchen the size of a food cart.

One camper joked that the name Forgotten Realms comes from fantasy role-playing games, and that there were more than a few homeless who “can handle a pair of dice.” He also pointed out that Hazelnut Grove residents don’t share their donated food fairly with people on his side of the fence.

Activist and homeless person Dave Walters, who often visits the camp but isn’t living there, said media attention has kept the camp growing.

“People who are not afraid to make the news have made this little bubble within the city possible, and to get this protection,” he said.

Walters said lots of people benefit from the camp’s safety and resources — including water, toilets, immunity from sweeps — and live nearby in bushes and by the train tracks.

“Other people are benefiting by being in proximity to these people, and not being harassed by the police, if you can hide yourself.”

Neighbors cite hazards

The homeless camps are located at the southern end of Willamette Bluff, a steep embankment that stretches 3.6 miles northwest of the University of Portland.

Some neighbors say the site is unsuitable for camping because it has no permanent water or sewer services, is far from social service agencies, and is not served by transit. They also say a November 2009 draft city report proves it has other problems that should limit any kind of public or private use.

The report is a natural resources inventory of the 258-acre uplands area prepared for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. It found landslide and wildfire hazards where the camps are located, and industrial pollution.

“Contamination exists at the southeast end of the site within the Union Pacific Railroad’s Albina Yard. Soil, surface water, groundwater, and near-shore sediments are contaminated from industrial uses associated with the railroad,” the report reads.

“There may be a suitable site for homeless camps in Portland, but this isn’t one them,” said one neighbor, who asked not to be identified for fear of being labeled “anti-homeless.”

Find out more

The environmental report on the Willamette Bluff area can be read at: portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/158904

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media affiliate. 

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