By LESLEY MCLAM
What does it look like after the city of Portland sweeps a houseless encampment?
A spokesperson from the City of Portland’s Office of Management and Finance reached out with concerns about this narrative.
After some discussion, they acknowledged that areas with signs marking the area for cleanup were not cleaned up, and that the signs were posted as a “preventative measure”.
They also said that the area photographed was railroad property, though they acknowledged in previous communications that the City doesn’t have ownership information on some of the parcels of land in question.
We’re preparing a piece outlining all the City’s concerns in detail, and plan to use this disagreement as an opportunity to learn more about what homeless and housed neighbors can expect from this City program.
The opportunity to discover the answer to that question came just after I interviewed houseless community advocate Mimi German, in North Portland, regarding a newly formed community named Jason Barns Landing. The community was named after a young houseless person, and community friend, who was killed by a vehicle while collecting bottles for recycling.
Mimi told me that the JBL encampment had been visited by authorities three days before and warned about being swept.
She also mentioned that Rapid Response, the company contracted by the city, had just finished sweeping a group of individuals camped further down the trail, off Fessenden Ave, earlier that day. I decided that I was curious enough about what the results of a homeless camp sweep would be to go check it out.
After interviewing Mimi German at Jason Barnes Landing, I walked down to the section of the trail which crosses Fessenden. Within steps of the Fessenden trail entrance, I immediately saw a noticeably displaced, yet quiet, young adult. He was sitting slumped under a tree next to the path beside a small barbecue wearing a backpack. I walked further into the trail.
A short distance later, I began to notice telltale signs of crushed grass and foliage between the path and the treeline. Tire tracks became easily visible, leading towards an opening in the treeline, a short distance further down, where large amounts of debris were visibly scattered.
Across from the tree-sheltered entrance to what was obviously an encampment which had been swept up just hours before, was a dated-style bicycle attached to a small trolley which trails behind. Nearby, stapled to a tree, a vivid neon green piece of paper, dated July 5th, gives notice of an impending sweep on July 8th, today.
Inside the cover of the trees, bare earth and cleared open areas were covered in left-behind clothes, food wrappers, bedding, and personal objects. A dirty comforter lay on a tree as if it was haphazardly tossed there. At the edge of the camp, there is a steep hill leading down towards train tracks loaded with several railcars.
Garbage was littered down the entire embankment, all the way to the edge of the tracks. Almost as if, the accumulated things of the habitants who had been sleeping there hours before had simply been thrown down the hill. Out of sight out of mind.
I turned away from the soiled bedding atop the low-hanging branch which signalled the embankment of garbage. Right then, I noticed a small corner which seemed less disturbed than the rest of the area. It was a cozy nook between some tree roots, angled in such a way as to feel like a personal berth on a ship or train. A t-shirt still lay smoothly atop the cardboard which was carefully fitted and layered between the roots and branches of the wall-like trees.
I might have guessed that the owner of this makeshift bed might have just risen from it, moments before, had I not known that the inhabitants had been unceremoniously shuffled from their refuge a short time before.
At the foot of the “bed” was a red square container with a biohazard sticker on it, toppled onto its side, although none of the intended contents— syringes— appeared to be visible anywhere.
I began moving back towards the treeline entrance to this particular leaf-covered campsite, and saw a person approaching on the path. As I emerged from the cool shade of the treeline, the passerby approached and asked if I was a member of the disbanded campsite. After having heard I was simply curious, they wandered into the campsite which I had just exited.
Walking back down the trail towards Fessenden, I glanced back to see the passerby getting cozy, to rest awhile in the shade, which, until recently had housed an unknown number of lives.
I began to wonder: why Rapid Response hadn’t taken the shoes scattered around, the blanket lying atop the branch, or any number of the half-filled bags of garbage, which littered the shaded grove of trees?
Why was there a sharps container, even without the dangerously dirty and pointy contents, left behind?
How is it that the only contents of the encampment which were removed by the city contracted crews, were the human beings who had been living there?
City of Portland’s One Point of Contact campsites report map from July 29th – August 4th (the red dots are vehicle reports).
The City of Portland plans to clean up 69 camps this week, and spends $3.6 million annually on campsite cleanups.
Lesley McLam is completing her second degree at Portland Community College, studying journalism and communications. She’s the proud mama of a beautiful 14-year-old black cat, and a volunteer anchor, copywriter, reporter, and occasional producer at KBOO community radio who is just beginning to learn about the world of podcasting.