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News / Northwest

Portland announces it will aggressively clean or remove homeless encampments

Officials say passive approach 'has been ineffective'

By Nicole Hayden, oregonlive.com
Published: May 19, 2021, 7:52pm

PORTLAND — The city of Portland announced Wednesday it plans to more aggressively clean, downsize or remove homeless encampments starting Monday.

After a year of avoiding or limiting encampment evictions, the city will act more strictly. The change comes after officials in charge of cleaning and removing street camping sites concluded that their passive approach “has been ineffective,” according to a memo released by the city.

Instead of allowing extended time for campers to comply with rules — including separating tents by at least 6 feet and keeping sidewalks, building entrances and accessibility ramps clear for pedestrians — the city will instead immediately post an eviction notice if certain health and safety concerns are present. The office that wrote the new rules answers to Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler via his chief administrative officer and longtime ally Tom Rinehart.

“We have found that encampments return to a state of non-compliance within a matter of days, if not hours, depending on the location,” according to the memo written by city staff.

In a joint statement, all five city commissioners expressed support for the change, casting the stepped-up evictions as good for people experiencing homelessness.

“These new protocols reprioritize public health and safety among houseless Portlanders and aim to improve sanitary conditions until we have additional shelter beds and housing available,” Wheeler and the rest of the City Council wrote. “Bureaus are currently inventorying city-owned properties for viable shelter or camping sites.”

The city does not know, however, how quickly or in what number new shelters on city property or elsewhere will open.

Tony Ngo, who has been living in a tent for six months in Old Town, said he believes the city should have more sanctioned campsites or tiny-home villages available before kicking people off the sidewalk where they currently sleep. He said the cycle of tent removals is harmful to people who have nowhere else to go.

“I was asked to leave where I was sleeping because a business didn’t want me there, so they kicked me out because they said I was impacting tourism,” Ngo said. “But it is hard to find another place to go because wherever I go, they kick me out, so it is hard to figure out where I can sleep.”

The new rules

The city memo says immediate eviction notices will be posted at high-impact campsites that have eight or more structures, a provision that would apply to many camp clusters around the city.

City officials and contractors will continue to give individuals 48 hours notice before an eviction, the memo says. However, the protocol change will eliminate the 24-hour compliance notice that typically would have come before the eviction notice. This means campers will have two days to pack up their belongings and move elsewhere before the city returns to remove any remaining personal belongings.

Additionally, the outreach team is no longer required to work with individuals at high-impact campsites before posting an eviction notice, said Heather Hafer, public information officer for the city department that oversees encampment cleanups. This means the city won’t always offer shelter or services prior to evicting campers, though it plans to continue sending its outreach team to many of the sites.

Eric Tars, legal director of the National Homelessness Law Center, said cities cannot legally displace people unless an adequate alternative place to sleep is provided.

Under a 2018 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in a case out of Boise, the court decided that governments cannot criminalize conduct that is unavoidable as a result of experiencing homelessness. To punish a homeless individual for sleeping outside when there aren’t enough shelter beds would be comparable to punishing that individual for the fact that they are homeless, a consequence that the court described as a cruel and unusual.

“The city (of Portland) says they are currently looking at alternative sites for shelters and sanctioned encampments and they haven’t found them yet, but they want to start this new policy immediately. … The underlying principle remains the same: You cannot and should not displace people unless you can provide an adequate alternative,” Tars said.

In his view, offering people only beds at congregate indoor shelters where individuals say they don’t feel safe sleeping does not qualify as “adequate,” Tars added.

“If there is a homeless veteran with PTSD who won’t feel safe in a congregate situation, then that shelter bed is not an adequate alternative,” Tars said.

Tars said he doesn’t believe people are “shelter resistant,” but believes cities often don’t provide the type of dignified, safe shelter that people need.

Tars said he couldn’t immediately say if Portland’s new policy is illegal without reviewing it further, but he said he doesn’t believe the policy is focused on helping individuals experiencing homelessness.

More housing caseworkers needed

At low-impact campsites, the city will continue to provide garbage removal and offer shelter, supportive services, and survival gear including coats and tents.

Melissa Warkentin, who sleeps amid a row of tents on Northwest Sixth Avenue near Davis Street, said the navigation team rarely offered comprehensive services to her or her houseless neighbors even before these new rule changes.

“It is hit or miss if you see (the navigation team),” said Warkentin, who has experienced homelessness for the past three years. “They pick and choose who they help, but mostly they just offer food, hygiene kits or access to showers. It would be more helpful if actual caseworkers regularly came out to help with housing.”

Since launching in January 2019, the outreach team has provided housing referrals to just 4 percent of the 918 individuals they engaged with, according to outcome data that was last updated in March. The team also helped 27 percent of those they talked to receive identification, 13 percent sign up for the Oregon Health Plan and 4 percent be admitted to a substance-abuse treatment center.

From March through July 2020, the city did not evict any encampments but offered trash removal and hygiene services based on recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Multnomah County Health Department. Reducing displacements was believed to lower the odds of COVID-19 transmission.

At the end of July, the city began evicting encampments again, but fewer than officials had in the past. But the city says it has continued to fail to get campers to abide by safety and cleanliness measures “to a standard accepted as satisfactory.”

Kaia Sand — director of Street Roots, a homelessness advocacy and resource organization — said she is disappointed with the new policy, calling it “reactive and destructive.”

“I feel like it signals a giving up on any semblance of a solutions-oriented strategy,” Sand said. “A constructive approach is to keep committing to the infrastructure need. … Where there are people, there will be trash, so of course there is so much trash removal, but you have to keep going.”

Warkentin believes more time should be spent enforcing cleanliness rather than evicting campers.

“If one tent among the many tents is messy, they will make us all move,” she said. “They will tell us to move two blocks up, or they will tell us there is nowhere for us to move to, but then new people will just move into the spot where we were kicked out, and they will be allowed to stay.”

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