Portland activists decry campsite sweep at Laurelhurst Park

2020 Protests

Activists at Laurelhurst Park on Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo: Zane Sparling, Portland Tribune)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Time appears to be running out for a homeless camp embedded in one of Portland’s wealthiest east side neighborhoods.

An unbroken row of tarpaulin-covered tents and cars has stretched along Southeast Oak Street on the border of Laurelhurst Park since at least August, but as of 9 a.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, city officials posted clearance orders announcing a sweep within the next seven days.

Activists have vowed to block the sweep, drawing more than 150 supporters to a rally and press conference on Tuesday morning, Nov. 10.

“The city’s decision to sweep this camp — in the middle of a devastating global pandemic, in the middle of November, just as temperatures are beginning to drop — is cruel and inhumane,” said one organizer with the collective Free Hot Soup. “But it isn’t surprising.”

The city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program announced a “raised threshold” for campsite clean-ups in April, citing guidance from the CDC. The new rules declared that only those camps near highways, blocking traffic or posing a significant health or safety risk would be removed.

But the rules changed again in June, when HUCIRP informed city and Multnomah County elected leaders of a new Phase 1 Protocol, which allows for removing camps with eight or more structures, that violate social distancing norms or are linked to “conspicuous drug use” or verified reports of crime.

About 2,100 removals have been performed in fiscal year 2019-2020 — a drop from the 3,122 clean-ups in 2018-2019 and 2,828 clean-ups reported the fiscal year before that.

About 15 of the roughly 100 campers at Laurelhurst have been referred to shelters, and the removal effort was synchronized with the opening of the Mt. Scott Community Center shelter last week, according to a local spokeswoman.

Heather Hafer, spokeswoman for HUCIRP, said Clean Start work crews have removed garbage from the camp twice a week for several months, installed portable toilets and first began conducting outreach at the site in August. Others were assessed for eligibility for permanent supportive housing.

“While many campers have relocated to shelters or have moved to be in compliance with our guidelines, many encampments in Laurelhurst Park are not in compliance,” Hafer said in email.

“The decision to clean and clear Laurelhurst Park is consistent with the thoroughly vetted processes and outreach efforts articulated in the Phase 1 Protocol, and was made after several attempts to provide services and referrals,” she continued. “I do not know the specific day and time of when campsite removals occur.”

J.J., a 26-year-old who has lived in a tent near the wooded park for four months, said tearing the camp apart would do more harm than good: “Homelessness shouldn’t be illegal. And this isn’t even homelessness, this is a community.”

“People feel safe here,” he said, “and that’s why they’re here.”

A 20-year-resident of the metro area who declined to give his name said he planned to decamp from his car to the Mt. Scott shelter, but said he was disappointed with the way it was handled by local authorities.

“It sucks when the cops lure you out of your tent with a meal, and then run your name,” he said.

His friend, who formerly experienced homelessness, said a loss of property was inevitable: “You’re going to lose your stuff regardless.”

Portland Police Bureau officers arrived at the beginning of the rally and told activists no sweep would occur on Nov. 10.

“We do not do ‘sweeps.’ It’s a common misconception that PPB is responsible for camp cleanups,” Officer Derek Carmon said in a statement to the Tribune. “At times they will request officers be there as a safety measure, but we are only there to assist.”

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