PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The Southeast neighborhood of Lents appears to have slowly recovered from the effects of what some have called the largest homeless encampment in the United States along the Springwater Corridor Trail last year.
The neighborhood attracted nationwide media coverage last September as residents complained of residual “livability” issues related to the encampments, including biohazards such as syringes, human waste and excess garbage, due to the large amount of campers who gravitated to the area.
A massive cleanup effort has helped.
“I mean you have some entrenched camps that continue to come to the area, but it’s just remarkable the difference between last year and this year,” says Jennifer Young, Lents resident and active member of the Lents Neighborhood Association.
Young had helped organize a town hall for the neighborhood in April, where City Council gathered to hear of residents’ frustrations.
At that time, neighborhood residents declared themselves in a “livability crisis.” Mayor Ted Wheeler responded by saying that the city had not treated the Lents neighborhood equally.
Neighbors also complained of abandoned cars and RVs in which homeless people were dwelling around Lents Park, problem “zombie homes” (long-neglected, unsafe houses abandoned by their owners) and an uptick in associated crime.
Neighbors and officials alike often point blame to former Mayor Charlie Hales’ decidedly “relaxed” approach to homeless camping before his term ended, when it became legal for folks to camp along public pathways. The “Safe Sleep” ordinance ended in early August 2016.
Now, a year after the Springwater cleanup, and following the springtime town hall, Wheeler, the city and Multnomah County have apparently stepped up efforts in coordination to patrol and clean up the Lents area.
Portland Parks and Recreation hired two rangers to patrol the Springwater Corridor Trail area, and residents say it’s curbed illegal camping.
“Springwater Corridor has been very, very clear. They hired two other rangers for this area, and with the One Point of Contact, they’ve been very responsive,” Young says.
The One Point of Contact system, managed by the city’s Office of Management and Finance, tracks homeless camps in the city and posts the reports each week online. They share them with various social service providers and sort the camps by the agency whose land a homeless camp sits on. Their most recent report reflected 666 new complaints about campsites between Aug. 7 and 13.
One of residents’ biggest complaints was the lack of coordination between agencies that own land that campers dwell on. Reporting which camp to the appropriate land-owning agency quickly became a confusing mess.
Neighbors are saying that city agencies are working better together, although it’s been difficult to rope in the Oregon Department of Transportation.
Both ODOT and the city of Portland work under court mandates in how they clean up campsites, but the mandates have different requirements. The city is able to respond much faster than ODOT can.
“So it’s not working perfect, but it’s better than what it was because they’re following through quicker than they ever have before,” says Lents resident Char Pennie.
Several problems remain, including many campers along the Interstate 205 Multi-Use Path, and the ongoing lack of affordable housing and shelter space for those living outside.
‘Big gap’ in ODOT, city ability in homeless camp cleanup
Young says there are issues of “turfing” between the Portland Police Bureau and Oregon Department of Transportation. While the Springwater Corridor Trail has been maintained, ODOT’s Multi-Use Path (commonly known as the MUP) isn’t receiving as much attention.
“The MUP is completely occupied,” Young says. Springwater, owned by the city, and the MUP, owned by ODOT, intersect near Southeast 92nd Avenue and Southeast Cooper Street. Children use the MUP to walk to Oliver P. Lent elementary school on the east side of Interstate 205.
“The state has a different set of rules and laws that impedes their ability to coordinate with us,” says Sgt. Randy Teig, team leader of the police bureau’s East Precinct. “That’s a big gap. The most basic answer is that the state has a 10-day rule, which tells them that they have to wait 10 days to take action basically on a trespasser on their property.”
The city, meanwhile, has to wait only 24 hours to clear out a camp after posting notification. Teig says that homeless campers have learned the various agencies’ boundaries and who cleans up when, so they just move from area to area.
“They know on ODOT property that they’re less likely to be moved frequently,” Teig says.
“It’s a frustration to (ODOT) because it looks like they’re not doing anything. ODOT has crews on the streets, then homeless people pick up the stuff and move it about 100 yards away and watch these guys clean up the campsites,” says Judy Low, president of the Lents Neighborhood Association.
“It has to be corrected at the state level, because ODOT can’t go around just violating state law.”
— Sgt. Randy Teig
“It has to be corrected at the state level, because ODOT can’t go around just violating state law,” Teig says, suggesting that the state could enact a law where the state could apply “local standard for property management.” ODOT has said it doesn’t deal with people, only with property.
Despite the gap, Teig says he doesn’t “recall a time we’ve had a more organized effort.” He says the bureau meets with the Joint Office of Homeless Services every Friday to talk about specific cases of homelessness. But ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton says the agency isn’t involved with “any weekly meetings with police about some high-level holistic approach to this problem.”
“We’re not a social service agency, we’re not a police agency, we have very limited things we can do,” Hamilton says. He added that they do meet regularly with the police bureau to talk about “what we do and how we do it.”
Teig says the police have a social service worker from the Joint Office of Homeless Services on call for the agency.
“Social services are using law enforcement as a method of information gathering, and basically our approach is services first,” Teig says. But he adds that if people resist — “and there’s a good amount of people who are service resistant” — then they could be arrested for trespassing.
Recently police went out on two 16-hour missions, talked to more than 160 homeless people and made 18 arrests for outstanding warrants and crimes. Teig said they put out five wildfires from camps along the MUP.
“Currently the two things that are drawing the most outrage out of the community are the motorhomes and the dangerous camps on the MUP,” Teig says.
‘Stuck between a rock and a hard place’
While the city and state grapple with enforcement on the MUP, they have taken some steps to address the seemingly incessant inflow of motorhomes parked on neighborhood streets.
“I wouldn’t go as far to say we’re getting a handle on it, but we’re making progress,” Teig says.
Initially, the problem was tasked mainly to the Portland Bureau of Transportation, which informed neighbors that they weren’t allowed to tow motorhomes when they were occupied — and their tow lots were full. The number of RV reports skyrocketed in past few years, with 27,000 reports to PBOT’s abandoned auto program in 2016. PBOT has since doubled its abandoned auto staff and found more tow space, and the police bureau started a new effort called the “Community Caretaking” tow program — having so far inspected 150 motorhomes and towing 50, according to Teig. It specifically addresses motorhomes that people are living in, which go beyond the realm of what PBOT deals with. The program targets RVs that “present an immediate health and safety risk to neighborhoods.”
Young says the first RV to be towed under the policy was occupied by a man who was exposing himself near Lents Park.
Teig says that not all RVs reported to their program meet qualifications for towing, but that “roughly half” of the people living in the motorhomes, when faced with the threat of towing, have family members to stay with. Some accept services and some don’t. He says they’ve been working with the Hansen Shelter on Northeast 122nd and Glisan so that someone displaced from an RV could have a place to sleep.
All involved, including Young, Teig and Hamilton, realize there’s a multitude of issues involved in addressing homelessness, especially while the city remains in an officially-declared housing emergency.
“We get such a variety of responses from the public, going from anywhere from, what can you do to help these poor people? To, this is horrible; can you clean this up in my neighborhood? And everything in between,” Hamilton says. “I think most people seem to realize that this is a very difficult social problem that is not resolved by any one agency such as ODOT, but rather as a whole series of disciplines that need to be brought to bear to help this.”
Young, although concerned about crime, hopes for more long-term solutions to homelessness.
“We’ve long said that where the city is failing is with wrap-around services and follow-up,” says Young, who also is a mental health therapist. “Advocates say not to sweep and keep them there forever, but what’s really being achieved? They’re just existing and living in these horrible conditions.”
Pennie is hopeful that ODOT can change its policy to clean up campsites after 24 hours. But when asked what that would mean for the homeless campers, she realized the struggle.
“Hopefully they could change it to 24 hours like the Springwater, but I don’t know what they’d do with them, because they’d be stuck between a rock and a hard place,” she says.
The Portland Tribune is a KOIN media partner.