By LESLEY MCLAM
The struggle is real.
Over the past decade or two, all across the United States, people’s lives are precariously balanced between past debts, future hopes, and their day-to-day struggles to get by.
For some, the day-to-day struggles have consumed much of their time and energy, putting them in a position of a lack, or worsening of, stability. This has become conspicuously true when it comes to housing.
38,000 people in the Portland,Oregon Metro area are living houseless, according to the recently released study by Portland State University and reported on by Street Roots.
However, in Portland’s neighborhood of St. Johns, a community of houseless individuals are hoping to help one another with the daily struggles, as well as find stability for themselves by creating a transitional camp.
In June, a small group of homeless advocates began moving forward with plans for a peer-organized and peer-led effort to create a stable transitional village. The transitional village would be a place for a its residents to sleep and for other unhoused persons to seek resources or peer-guidance.
Jason Barns Landing (JBL) is the name the group chose, in order to honor the memory of a beloved friend who was like family to them— and to strengthen the bond of the community.
Jason Barns was still a young man when he was hit and killed by a driver while can-collecting late at night. He recycled cans to support himself, after becoming unhoused and living on the streets. He was struggling with— and trying to overcome— an addiction enabled by street living.
Jason always dreamed of a safe and stable place where he could get his life back on track; he didn’t feel comfortable in shelters.
After all, how is one supposed to rebuild a sense of purpose and autonomy while always under the limitation of rules of living set by official services?
Jason built himself a family of friends who mourn him. A family of friends who decided to move forward with his dream of a safe place to sleep— without the fear of being swept up by the City.
To begin, members and advocates for the new village reached out to local groups and scouted areas.
JBL’s goal was simply to be heard and allowed to exist on an otherwise unused and tiny corner of Metro property beside the Columbia Boulevard entrance to the Peninsula Crossing Trail. The JBL Village is situated on Metro-owned property, not Portland Parks & Recreation property, despite the proximity to the trail. The trail is managed by PP&R according to an agreement between Metro and the PP&R.
On the third day of their new village— June 28th— JBL created a Facebook page, complete with photos of sturdy wooden platforms for half a dozen tents to be pitched upon.
There was a small kitchen area and a food pantry that was slowly getting stocked, as well as a more secluded corner for the bathing area. A spot to sleep, get showered and dressed, and then eat before heading out to be a part of society had become real for the members group.
Smiles beaming from photographs and hopeful posts on their Facebook page showed the neat progress the village was making— as well as how quickly the concerns of being removed by the City were beginning to shadow JBL residents’ hopes of stability.
One post read:
Posts from JBL during the first week were full of optimism, but also hinted toward the emerging battle with the City.
Several of the posts asked for donations of needed supplies and food. Others called for people to reach out to City Commissioner Nick Fish about the village’s portable toilets that were removed from the site on their second day.
The portable toilets and service to empty them regularly, were pre-paid by a donation. The portable toilets had to be replaced with a composting toilet.
And all the while kindly reminding the reader:
There were originally seven people in the JBL group but two couldn’t handle it, so it went down went to five. However, the group is considering a sixth person at the moment.
JBL’s first sweep
July 4th was Independence Day for much of the country, but for Jason Barns Landing it was the ninth day after their site had received a posted notice for a sweep by the City of Portland, JBL members said.
A sweep is when the City determines that there is a need to remove rubbish from public areas, which includes unauthorized campsites. A neon green sign is posted by the City informing nearby campers that the site is scheduled for a cleanup.
The City must then wait 48 hours, or two days, before a City contracted cleanup crew is legally allowed to sweep the left-behind possessions at an illegal campsite into a cleanup truck and dispose of it, according to the rules. Each green sweep sign posted is valid for only 10 days after the date it was posted and, according to City officials, a posting only occurs after the City has received complaints about a site.
Those who had begun living at JBL felt anything other than free and independent while under threat of potential sweeps by the City. They kept a clean and organized village site, and were doing what they could to communicate their goals for a stable transitional village to the City.
But, fear to leave the site unattended in order to access services, or look for work, began to creep in among the villagers— destabilizing the immediate dreams of those within the community.
Over the next weeks, members and advocates of the JBL site continued to reach out to members of the media, community service organizations, and to the City. There were meetings with community resource representatives, such as Central City Concern, and regular phone calls to Nick Fish’s office.
As a reporter for KBOO Community Radio, I met with and interviewed members and advocates for JBL a few times for the Evening News, including St. Johns resident Mimi German.
The interview with German and JBL residents linked in the KBOO image below begins @ -24:34.
German say that Commissioner Fish’s office refused to assist JBL in understanding where the pre-paid donated toilets went, and that the patrols and sweeps of JBL have become more frequent. Members of JBL have been arrested for standing their ground and refusing to have their possessions repeatedly swept away by cleanup crews, German said.
One P&R Ranger was even taken to court to apply for a restraining order against him for abusive and threatening language and behavior against JBL residents and neighbors, she also said. Several village residents have also been issued “exclusion notices” from PP&R. Exclusion notices are given to an individual to disallow them the right to be on any public property owned by that department.
The village sought a way to end the sweep notices and actions, stop exclusions from being handed out, and to coordinate with services and outreach to provide help and resources for JBL campers and visitors. They had hoped to build a transitional village with the “housing-first” motto and “a home for everyone,” concept as their mindset.
They also wanted their paid-for, donated toilets returned to them!
Instead of their toilets being returned, or beginning processes with the City to approve their village— during the entire month of July the campers at JBL had to deal with the City, it’s contracted clean-up crews, police, and Parks & Recreation rangers.
Instead of receiving coordinated care from City services and outreach groups, JBL villagers have been continuously fighting a vicious cycle of visitations and postings, cleanups, property exclusion citations, and tracking down and retrieving their swept possessions.
While communicating with a City official regarding sweep-cleanup practices, I was told that the notices that are posted at a site for cleanup, apply to a 250-foot area surrounding the posting.
The official acknowledged that the area known as JBL had been swept on July 10th, and that the notices which were posted down the length of the Peninsula Crossing Trail (from N. Columbia Blvd to N. Lombard St) “were a precautionary measure” related to sweeping JBL.
Ostensibly it was to prevent JBL villagers from temporarily relocating nearby until they could re-establish their village.
The warning notices also are only valid at a site location for ten days after being posted, meaning that a new posting would need to be put up after the ten days has passed. This should also re-initiate the 48 hour “safe period” after the date of posting where that site could not be swept.
JBL residents say that the 48-hour and ten-day rules have not been followed many times. It is unclear how many times the City will allow a single site to be cleaned during the eight valid days a dated posting notice is in effect.
The cleanup crews which are contracted by the City of Portland to clean up the debris leftover from unsanctioned urban campsites, are also the same which bag up and remove possessions for campers to reclaim at a warehouse within 30 days. JBL villagers say they have recovered less than half of the tents and belongings taken during multiple sweeps.
The largest City contract to cleanup these sites, is with Rapid Response, which is now authorized to receive around $1 million in annual funding for its roughly 25 employees who do the work, according to a Portland Mercury article. JBL residents are familiar with some of the employees, and less than positive interactions with the company have led them to dub it “Rabid Response”.
The City has received numerous complaints from the houseless population, including members of JBL, about how these cleanup crews operate and harass campers. A Portland Mercury article from June 2019 addressed this topic.
At the May 22nd Portland City Council meeting, Mayor Ted Wheeler mentioned the complaints about cleanup crews:
“We try to reduce the amount of harm or trauma that the people doing this work on behalf of the city are inflicting on people,” [Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program manager Lucas] Hillier responded. “I don’t know that I’d feel good to say that we don’t ever inflict any kind of trauma, because when somebody’s living outside, and somebody comes and tells them, ‘We’re going to collect property,’ that’s a traumatic experience inherently.”
JBL is adamant that it has made it a point to keep their encampment clear of such hazards that might warrant a clean-up, yet it continues to receive new posting notices and sweeps only because it exists.
In July, two people were arrested during a sweep for “failing to comply with a lawful order”, because they did not want to go along with the traumatic experience of having JBL possessions taken away.
An Oregonian article reported recently that over 50% of arrests by Portland Police were of homeless individuals.
By August, the sweeps of Jason Barns Landing had become nearly daily occurrence, supporters said. Helpers would retrieve belongings packed up by one sweep from the warehouse in SE Portland, and return them to JBL, only to have another sweep occur before the end of the week, sometimes the very next day.
Social media posts detail the frustrating struggle with enforcement officers and Rangers regularly showing up, removing possessions, and generally making the villagers feel harassed.
Since the houseless crisis began to emerge after the Great Recession, there have been several court cases and rulings which should have had a direct positive impact on peer-led villages such as JBL, ensuring their Constitutional rights.
In October 2017, State of Washington v. Pippin, was a case where the appeals court rule in favor of the defendant, William Pippin. An American Civil Liberties Union of Washington article describes:
“that a homeless man camping on public land has the same right to privacy inside his tent as others have in their homes— and that police can’t enter without a warrant— the Washington Court of Appeals this month affirmed this right.”
In April of this year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which presides over nine Western states, made a ruling determining that ticketing or citing a homeless person for sleeping in a public space violated that person’s 8th Amendment rights.
The judicial Opinion for the case Martin v. Boise states: “that an ordinance violates the Eighth Amendment insofar as it imposes criminal sanctions against homeless individuals for sleeping outdoors, on public property, when no alternative shelter is available to them.”
Court rulings like these are known by the advocates and villagers of Jason Barns Landing, but informing authorities and City Officials about them has not, so far, reduced or prevented the City’s actions against them.
Without day-to-day stability, a person’s focus becomes solely on immediate survival, and not long-term survival. To become a beneficial part of society, a person needs the privacy to engage with themselves in order to keep focused. A person needs a private place to handle the mass of emotions and stressors that life throws their way.
This is what I’ve learned from multiple meetings with the villagers and homeless advocates, and all my reporting and research on the issue.
Daily and weekly visits, postings, citations, arrests and sweeps from various arms of the City have prevented JBL villagers from doing much else besides trying to rebuild their temporary homes, restate their position and goals, reach out the the greater Portland community and hope that the actions from the City will stop.
The continual exclusions, sweeps and arrests make it severely difficult for JBL to find enough stability to create positive change in a handful of lives.
The day-to-day struggles, such as finding a bathroom or place to fill up the water jugs, also often eclipse JBL residents’ ability to regain any form of stability.
And soon, the cooler weather will make it more dangerous for all houseless individuals struggling to build stability and a new life for themselves.
Yet, the community at Jason Barns Landing are determined to fight for a place to safely return to sleep each night; where their community can gather for a meal they cooked together. A place that Jason Barns had only dreamed of being able to create for those he cared about, made real.
After all, sometimes it takes a village.
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.