PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The city of Portland announced Wednesday that it will be increasing the number of urban homeless camps they remove for camps that pose public health and safety risks, beginning Monday, May 24.

The “more assertive approach” from the city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program comes after officials said the number and size of homeless camps — and trash — 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.

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.

The city of Portland has revised its camp removal policy to speed of the pace of removals that are deemed a public health or safety risk. May 19, 2021 (KOIN).

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.

While the number of locations with more than 10 structures was four or five before the pandemic, now it is nearly 30 today. Fewer than five locations scored higher than 70 on the Impact Reduction Program’s 100-point risk assessment tool prior to March 2020. Today, more than 25 locations surpass that metric.

The Impact Reduction Program continued collecting trash throughout the pandemic, with record-breaking increases being recorded. The average amount of trash collected near campsites in 2019 was 500,000 pounds, which increased to an average of 650,000 pounds in 2020. In March of 2021, the figure was 818,560 pounds.

The statement of the revised protocols from the city said many encampments did not adhere to CDC guidance related to socially distancing tents, limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people, and that they blocked wheelchair accessibility and public sidewalks in some cases.

The initial COVID-19 phase one protocol for the Impact Reduction Team involved a 24-hour warning for camps deemed to pose a substantial public health safety risk posted prior to the standard 48-hour eviction notice. With this new guidance in place, that 24-hour warning notice has been eliminated for high impact sites, leaving only the 48-hour eviction notice to campers.

When asked for clarification on this change, city spokesperson Heather Hafer told KOIN 6 News via email that the extra 24-hour warning would no longer be posted “to high-impact locations only–this extra notice was in addition to the 48-hour minimum posting notice.”

“The Navigation Team is no longer required to work at high-impact sites before we can post them, but we will continue to send the Navigation Team out to many locations prior to posting,” Hafer added.

In addition, KOIN 6 News inquired about whether encampments at Laurelhurst Park would be on the list to receive an eviction notice, to which Hafer said: “Our elected officials are still in conversations about how to proceed with Laurelhurst Park.” Activists had rallied back in April against sweeps of homeless camps in the area after it was targeted by the city for removal.

Some examples the city gave of camp locations that quickly returned to a state of non-compliance within a matter of days or less, despite the warning period, included Peninsula Crossing Trail, NE 60th and Prescott, and natural areas, such as the Big Four Corners, Columbia Slough Trail and Foster Flood Plains.

Existing protocols prioritize removing encampments with one of the following criteria:

  • Eight or more structures
  • Block someone’s ability to use public sidewalks, paths, transit stations, public restrooms or building entrances
  • Score 65 or higher on the Impact Reduction Program’s 100-point risk assessment scale
  • Credible reports of criminal behavior, other than camping

Under the new plan, beginning May 24, the city will begin to post eviction notices to campsites where any one of the following is occurring:

  • Untreated Sewage is prevalent, leading to increased risks of exposure to Shigella or Hepatitis A
  • Locations determined to present a public health risk to both housed and unhoused community members due to the presence of biohazardous materials; OR
  • Locations identified by Portland Fire & Rescue as being an extreme fire risk or blocking critical fire access; OR
  • Verified reports of violence, arrest, or criminal activity; OR
  • ADA access is blocked despite attempts by outreach to maintain ADA accessibility requirements; OR
  • Encampments are impeding regular operations at schools.

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A rolling map of the last 12 weeks of reported campsite locations (City of Portland).

The guidance statement also said the Impact Reduction Program will continue doing everything it can prior to posting eviction notices, including:

  • Dispatching Clean Start to assist in maintaining a low impact site, removing garbage, offering
    resource information, and communicating with individuals about how to maintain a low impact
  • Coordinating with outreach providers to assist with extremely vulnerable individuals, educating
    individuals on fire/life safety information and information related to capital improvement projects or construction scheduled to take place in the immediate vicinity, and offering shelter/service referrals;
  • Distributing survival gear provided by the Joint Office of Homeless Service’s supply warehouse.

The Impact Reduction team performed outreach and referral services during the pandemic, including over 650 shelter referrals, as well as providing sack lunches, hand sanitizer, face coverings and survival gear. In addition, they established a hygiene access program involving 125 bathroom and handwashing units installed throughout the city. A pilot program offering employment opportunities for people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity was also established.

Returning the streets to pre-pandemic conditions in terms of the encampments and trash could take two or more years, officials said.

Mayor Ted Wheeler and every other Portland Commissioner also released a joint statement Wednesday, saying the city is currently inventorying city-owned properties for viable shelter or camping sites as part of the Shelter to Housing Continuum. They said that inventory and these new protocols will allow officials to act more quickly as future campsites become established and grow.

“We recognize the challenging work done by the Impact Reduction Program to respect individuals experiencing houselessness while also maintaining safe and hygienic conditions, and are extremely grateful for the thoughtfulness and compassion they bring to their work. We also wish to thank the housed and unhoused Portlanders whose thoughtful feedback helped us think through these issues,” the statement read.

You can view past and upcoming campsite cleaning and removals done by the city on its website.