PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The City of Portland says it is handling homeless camp cleanups differently starting Monday, focusing on clearing tent groups that pose safety or health threats.

Last week, the City of Portland announced that it will be increasing the number of urban homeless camps they remove for camps in what they are calling a “more assertive approach.” In addition to clearing camps that pose health and safety risks, the revamped initiative also targets camps that block sidewalks, transit stops, public restrooms and building entrances.

The city says they will prioritize camps with eight or more tents first.

Street Roots Lead Ambassador Gary Barker was homeless a year ago and said he knows what it’s like to have to move from one place to another.

“That’s not a solution to make people move somewhere where they already have nowhere to go, how would you feel? think about that,” he said.

Barker said he doesn’t believe going back to pre-pandemic policies is the answer. He wants to see more housing options first.

According to Mark Alejos, a spokesperson with the city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program, their organization provides garbage removal, hygiene access, resource referral and job opportunities in addition to removing the campsites. 

“Using empathy and innovation, we minimize the impacts of homelessness today while partner programs expand long-term access to safe, affordable housing,” Alejos told KOIN 6 News.

This approach comes after officials said the number and size of homeless camps — and trash — has increased since the pandemic began.

According to the agency’s revised guidance statement, their previous COVID-19 Phase 1 Protocol was deemed “ineffective” based on their analysis and feedback.

Kim James, Cascadia’s clinical director of homeless and housing support said there’s a lot going on behind the scenes that people don’t see.

“We try to work with those individuals and offer them solutions, offer them services, ongoing and so when they are posted they do have some alternatives,” she said. “They have met us, they know we’re here, they know that outreach is available.”

From March to July 2020, campsite removals ceased altogether following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Multnomah County Health Department. Then removals resumed but in a drastically reduced capacity following a revised campsite protocol for campsites that posed the greatest health and safety risks, officials said.

Though it’s still unknown whether the number of homeless people on the street actually increased since the pandemic began, city officials have made it clear that the number and sizes of camps has increased, as well as the amount of trash.

Before the pandemic, about 50 campsites were removed each week. But for the past year, the city removed an average of five campsites each week, leaving behind a build-up of trash, needles and other biohazardous waste across Portland, officials said.