Hillsboro lot with ‘extremely unsafe’ homeless camp sold

Washington County

Service providers criticized a county-initiated cleanup of the camp that required campers to temporarily leave.

A Washington County-owned property on SW Baseline Road in Hillsboro where homeless people have established a large camp. (Wade Evanson/PMG)

HILLSBORO, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The Washington County Board of Commissioners last week approved the sale of a county-owned property in Hillsboro where homeless people have been camping for months.

In a 4-1 vote late last month, the board authorized the sale of the property, located at 874 S.W. Baseline Road, to the adjacent property owner, Inukai Honda, for $500,000.

Commissioner Nafisa Fai voted “no.”

The property, an acre in size, is a former gas station and car wash that the county acquired in 2014 through a tax foreclosure process.

The county received no bids for the property during an auction in 2018, county officials said in a statement about the sale.

Following a due diligence period, the county expects the sale to be completed on Nov. 30.

During that time, county officials plan to work with local homeless service providers to relocate campers.

Commissioners also approved the use of a portion of the sale proceeds to provide short-term hotel vouchers for people who are unable to find other shelter options. The county’s winter shelter network will open in mid-November.

The sale comes just days after homeless service providers urged county officials to postpone a cleanup of the camp, requiring campers to temporarily remove their belongings and leave.

In a letter dated Sept. 17, officials from nine service providers told county officials a cleanup of the camp would sow distrust between them and campers.

They explained that they had used information relayed to them by a county official the week prior to tell campers a cleanup would not occur.

“This larger issue may not be able to be solved in a matter of days, but we know it is possible to get this sweep postponed,” read the letter, adding that service providers have rallied to provide additional services at the camp. “The information communicated to us by county officials about the cleanup is the information we share with those we serve.”

Among the signatories are Eboni Brown, director of Greater Good Northwest, which operates the Econo Lodge shelter in Hillsboro; Kim Marshall Gordon, director of Project Homeless Connect; Maria Caballero Rubio, director of Centro Cultural de Washington County; and Shawn Cardwell, director of the Forest Grove Foundation.

“Now we are perceived as going against what you as a county have decreed and what we have communicated to them; this action creates more distrust, displacements, and disrupts progress,” the letter continued. “Continuing this type of action is making it nearly impossible to safely do outreach as more and more camps are refusing to let service providers in, for fear we may be the ones reporting them to the county.”

Brown, Marshall Gordon and Cardwell could not be reached for comment on this story.

The letter was also critical of the county’s practice of forcing campers to temporarily leave the camp, saying it isn’t mindful of campers’ traumatic experiences.

County officials told Pamplin Media Group that procedures designed to not re-traumatize campers are part of its encampment management program, adding that staff work to communicate clearly with campers, wear non-threatening clothing, provide resources and give more than the legally required 72 hours of notice before cleanup occurs.

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In an email response to service providers on behalf of the county commissioners, officials said, “Moving forward, we are actively working on refining our communications plan to ensure clear and timely communication with our partner organizations so that you in turn can share up-to-date and reliable information with participants.”

Officials declined the postponement request, however, saying conditions at the camp were “extremely unsafe.” They added that with 50 structures on the property, the safety situation was deteriorating.

Campers first moved to the property in mid-July, said Emily Roots, a spokesperson for the county’s housing services division, in an email to Pamplin Media Group.

An Aug. 24 inspection of the camp as part of the county’s encampment management program yielded a risk assessment score of 50, the lowest score needed to prompt a two-week notice requiring campers to reduce health and safety risks to avoid a county-initiated closure of the camp for cleaning.

The same day, county staff became aware of a potential COVID-19 outbreak at the camp, officials said. Management activities were paused to allow public health officials to investigate.

They didn’t find evidence of an outbreak, and county staff posted the two-week notice to reduce health and safety risks at the camp on Aug. 31, officials said.

To comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Martin v. Boise regarding camping on public property, officials said, staff told campers they would be allowed to stay if they reduced health and safety risks.

Previously, county officials delivered portable toilets, a handwashing station and a dumpster with a twice per week collection schedule to the camp, officials said.

Despite camper-led cleanup efforts along with service provider assistance and support from county and Metro staff, a second inspection on Sept. 14 yielded a risk assessment score four points higher than the initial score.

The assessment report shows the camp received risk points for reported crimes, trash and debris, sewage in open containers, and the size of the camp.

On Sept. 16, county staff posted a five-day notice for campers to vacate the property and remove personal items before a county-initiated cleanup beginning Sept. 21, officials said.

They also contacted the nonprofit Community Action Organization to notify service providers of the cleanup and request support for campers, officials said.

The letter from service providers to the county urging a postponement of the cleanup came the following day.

Efforts to remove garbage and other items were largely completed Sept. 24, county officials said.

They added they have allowed campers to return to the camp and returned sanitary services to the property. It’s unclear how many campers returned, but county staff counted 25 tents and RVs — half as many as before the cleanup — at the property on Sept. 27, Roots said.

On Friday, Oct. 2, state Rep. Susan McLain commended county commissioners for committing to work with service providers before the sale is final to support the campers, but she also urged them to make a greater financial commitment.

“The needs of our unhoused community in western Washington County are immediate and their situations dire as cold weather approaches,” McLain said in a letter. “Therefore, I encourage you to use all of the proceeds from the property sale to support not just hotel vouchers, but wraparound services and training assistance and coordination with community organizations that are on the ground doing the hard work day and night.”

Asked Monday, Oct. 4, about McLain’s request, Roots said in part, “When they approved the land sale, the Board of Commissioners also approved allocating a portion of the proceeds to sheltering and short-term hotel vouchers to support the transition of current occupants of the 874 Baseline encampment. The board has not provided alternate direction for the remainder of the funds.”

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