By LESLEY MCLAM
This article is about what happened when an average Portland citizen, like myself, is curious about the efficacy of the programs being funded by the City to address those who are visibly unhoused.
In a recent article I simply reported what I saw— expressing my disgust and curiosity as to how the sweeps are conducted, and why so much garbage was left behind.
It’s important for housed and houseless neighbors to know what to expect from the sweeps. Instead, I became disappointed by those who claim to support homeless rights and a City employee who seemed to be more interested in pressuring and misleading us over the article, rather than help us be better informed.
On July 8th, a Monday, I went up to the area in North Portland known as St Johns, to speak with the members of the transitional houseless camp called Jason Barns Landing.
Once I’d heard from multiple persons that Rapid Response Bio Clean had been sighted, sweeping up an area further along the trail just south of Fessenden Avenue, I went down to the location that had been described to me.
I had been wondering what an area would look right like after Rapid Response came to clean it up.
After walking down the path and taking photographs of the city sign warning about the sweep and trash and belongings strewn about after Rapid Response finished, I wrote an article that was published in Village Portland.
The article was also posted to the Facebook Group “Portland Homeless,” managed by Jeff Woodward. It had been posted by Cory Elia, another local journalist and Village Portland reporter who has extensively covered homelessness in the area, then approved by Jeff. Within 48 hours Jeff had removed the post from the Group page and kicked the poster out of the social media group.
I later reached out to Jeff, asking why the post containing my article had been removed from the group.
His response was:
“Because it’s a smear piece on RR. also, it’s not news. It’s been going on like it is now for 10+ years.“
I found it interesting that Woodward doesn’t deny that trash is left behind after a sweep. He also seems to think that it’s not a problem because it’s been happening for so long. We disagree. He also erroneously assumed I’d asked someone else to post the article to the group I was a part of; Elia posted the article because he also thought the issue needed to come to light.
Woodward claims that he used to fight the sweeps five years ago, so I wonder why he would choose to censor an article questioning their efficacy? It was my understanding that this social media group was a place for free discussion regarding the group’s topic: homelessness.
Woodward removed me from the Facebook group within a week of the exchange with him. What purpose does it serve to disallow that article and remove members who promote on-topic discussion?
Besides reaching out to a moderator, there is no opportunity to appeal a decision to the rest of the group or to Facebook. It’s just part of the platform: people can be “disappeared” from a group for any reason, without a trace.
The response from Woodward was not the same as found in other online social media groups, where comments were generally supportive.
The City of Portland and the houseless
The City of Portland recently released “A Response To Homelessness”, in their Summer 2019 quarterly newsletter.
Page 4 mentions a Navigation Team which “takes a ‘services first’ approach to high-impact campsites. It works over an extended period of time to connect campers to shelter, services, housing, and health support before a camp is posted for cleaning and removal – rather than continuing the cycle of posting, cleaning, and having a camp return.”
Again, we wanted to ask the questions that any neighbor would have when signs are posted and belongings are left behind. To learn what many a houseless person has learned from lived experience. What we learned made us question how the sweeps are run and if the City follows its own rules.
Immediately after publication, a City of Portland employee was quick to rush for a request of retraction for my article, which would gladly have been given if any errors were to be found in the narrative in question. The exchange made us wonder what happens behind the scenes when the City interacts with residents, so in the spirit of transparency, we wanted to share it all.
This is where email exchanges with a City employee began.
On August 6th, around 9 am, Public Information Officer for the City of Portland’s Office of Management & Finance, Heather Hafer, reached out to the editor / publisher of Village Portland, in response to the article I wrote titled “What does it look like after Rapid Response ‘Cleans Up’?”.
Hafer’s initial email exchanges with Village Portland editor Andrew Wilkins, between 9 and 11 am that morning, show that she was confused as to the location to which I was referring and attempted to correct me, stating that “The picture of the posting in the article is dated 7/5/2019 and time stamped at 2:45 pm, near the area known as Jason Barns Landing.”
Hafer also said that “The photos of the trash and debris are from an area of the trail further south (south of Lombard), and on the north side of the trail, off of the PR easement, and on BNSF property. The City’s official posting was not at this location.”
Unfortunately for Hafer, the photos I took were exactly at the location which I had indicated in the Village Portland article, confirmed by the coordinates that I recorded.
In the emails with Wilkins, Hafer states that “Property ownership is a public record which is easily accessible online for verification purposes.”
The image Hafer provided was of the area around Jason Barns Landing, which is directly South of the edge of Columbia Boulevard, and not on the portion of the Peninsula Crossing Trail just south of Fessenden Avenue, which I had described in the article in question. It was a different location altogether.
Local journalist Elia, who has extensively reported on the Houseless crisis through publications such as The Sentinel and PSU‘s Vanguard, and who was also with me on the day I described in my Village Portland article, chose to reach out separately to Hafer. This was a topic with which he was intimately familiar and always researching.
Elia inquired about the property lines in the North Portland area and where to find that information. After the exchange, Elia reached out to me to let me know what had transpired.
Her helpful response was: “Unfortunately, this is the most comprehensive information we have. I looked on the map in the area you were searching and found a couple of parcels that belong to Metro, but you are right – there are some parcels that do not have ownership information. The City of Portland does not manage property ownership records, we actually get all of that from Multnomah County. You might want to try the Multnomah County assessor’s office to see if they can provide you with more information.”
Several hours were then spent online, attempting to determine exactly where the property line is between BNSF and Portland Parks & Recreation land in that area.
My email response to Hafer’s concerns did not get sent until late in the day, after several emails had already been exchanged between Hafer and Wilkins.
Hafer responded, just after 5 pm, to my late-afternoon email, with the hope of offering some clarity to her misunderstandings about the article.
Hafer’s reply stated: “The City nor its contractors legally cannot collect garbage in some of the areas you photographed. Also, Rapid Response would never leave behind a container of needles behind, we track each and every needle collected as part of our performance measures.“
Her first email to the editor had also said: “…the picture of the ivy covered hill right next to the railroad is a pretty clear indication that it is not a City of Portland Property.”
Most of the trash was nearby the signs, and even the trash-strewn hill was with the 250 feet range Hafer said the signs are supposed to cover. This was the first time I’ve heard of the size of the enforceable area indicated by a sweep sign.
The sharps container in my photograph was not on the ivy-covered hillside, but it was under the treeline, also near the sweep sign.
Regardless of property lines or who was responsible cleaning up the trash, the photos were of what was left behind as we saw it.
When I read that response from Hafer, one of my first thoughts was that she had not mentioned whether or not they also collect and track “sharps” containers as well as needles. Especially since the article and photographs were of an apparently empty container.
Well, one question is partially answered; but it still begs to ask where exactly the property lines are located between the Peninsula Crossing Trail and BNSF property, in the section between North Fessenden and North Lombard Avenues?
That thought leads me back to wondering about Hafer’s early [9:40 am] emails that suggest “The large majority of the pictures featured in this article are on Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) property, and the City of Portland and Rapid Response crews are not legally allowed to clean BNSF property,” as well as mentioning that they are easily findable public records online.
The area beside the path and under the tree line seems to be where the questions of property lines and responsibility, are murky. There are no signs indicating property ownership lines in that area, nor where railroad property begins.
Plus, I was aware of the early afternoon exchange with Elia, who had also asked her about the same topic.
Yet, Hafer could only offer map of an area North of what was in question, that had been marked up with a confusing mix of symbols and colors that did not truly draw out any of the property lines in question. She even admitted in an email exchange, that the property lines in that area “were unclear“.
Hafer also said later:
“A couple of things. I just learned from the HUCIRP Program Manager that we put flyers around a much larger area than we ended up cleaning. So the location of the posting is not a big concern – its the inaccuracy of the pictures showing garbage left behind by Rapid Response staff, and the misleading title.”
In this response, Hafer acknowledged that areas posted for cleanup were not cleaned. This also differed from her initial claim that the location we photographed was not posted for a cleanup.
In that same [5 pm] email, Hafer also acknowledges that “It seems we are indeed talking about two different areas. The attached area is the best I can provide in terms of property lines.
BNSF property starts at the tip of the red arrows and extends past the tracks all the way to the right edge of the light green triangle, labeled 6048. The yellow oval in the middle of the image is the area that required the most clean up. This is not the same area that you provided in your screenshot.
The last times we cleaned that area south of Fessenden and North of Lombard were on 4/9 and 5/20. But the cleanup that resulted from the posting on 7/5 only included the area highlighted in yellow on the attached map – which does not appear to be the same area where you took photos.”
Hafer then urged me to view the photos of that cleanup which she described being a result of the July 5th postings, near Jason Barns Landing.
She is exactly right that the images in my article were not indicative of the cleanup performed in the yellow area on her provided map. The yellow area is the JBL site that Hafer had already acknowledged as being completely different than what I discussed in my article.
“I urge you to look at the before and after photos of this cleanup…Though please know that this particular site has a history of returning to its original state just a few days after it has been cleaned. But the photos are timestamped and I’m seeing very clean and clear ‘after’ photos taken July 9th, some of which have geographic information tied to them as well. This is the best verification I can provide.”
A 2018 article from The Columbian titled: ” BNSF Suing property developer, alleging encroaching on operating corridor,” which I sent to Hafer in my email, states that “BNSF maintains it owns land 50 feet on either side of the center line of its mainline track…”. I received no reply referencing the Columbian article information.
How does the City and its contractors decide where to clean if property line is unclear? And when will the City demand that the railroad clean up the messes on their property?
On August 9th, a Friday, I went back to that specific section of the trail, around 5 pm.
I noticed the entire section of the Peninsula Crossing Trail between North Lombard and North Fessenden Avenue had been posted with neon green signs. These City signs were dated August 9th, 2019 at 2 pm. This was the same stretch of trail that I had brought attention to in the August 7th article which caused such mixed responses.
There were half a dozen tents and people hanging out with bicycles and belongings alongside the pathway, in the cool grass not too far from one of the signs.
I snapped a photograph of one sign that was stapled to a telephone pole, on the railroad side of the trail, less than a handful of feet from the edge of the asphalt path. This is precisely the section of property which caused so much consternation.
Before I left, I had the thought: “at least these campers will have the weekend to rest up, before the City responds to them by re-shuffling them around early Monday morning.”
The purpose of my original article was to express my thoughts and questions concerning post-cleanup sites. These questions are some of the same that I have heard from others around Portland.
I wondered why the hillside was full of garbage and why the area between it and the trail was littered with scattered belongings and half-full trash bags? I also wondered why we, as a City, can’t do better job with the sweeps.
These are questions plaguing many who live in Portland, when seeing the houseless crisis unfold on their streets. We’re not the only one with concerns: a recent audit also found that the City could do better managing the sweeps.
St Johns resident and houseless advocate and JBL camp organizer, Mimi German has also been brimming with questions about City policies on its unhoused residents.
German says that Rapid Response (which are hired by the City’s Office of Management & Finance) personnel have intentionally and routinely ignored the policies that are set in place by the City regarding sweeps. She has been very vocal about questioning how sweeps are enforced and why there is a need for continual sweeps in clean encampments.
In another article I wrote, German goes into more detail about the history of JBL and the camp’s frequent sweeps since it was established this summer.
In another email obtained by Village Portland, German made a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request for the original maps associated with land parcels belonging to Metro that are under PPR easement in this particular area.
In late August, City official responded with:
“Though we note you asked, there are no maps of the properties available We want to clarify that Rapid Response is a contractor and that engaging them is a decision made by the City’s Office of Management and Finance (OMF) in consultation with property-managing bureaus. It is possible that a small number of other Metro parcels have been added to PP&R’s purview over time.”
Who are the property-managing bureaus that the City’s OMF consults with? What is a “small number of parcels”? Plus, if other Metro parcels have been added to PP&R purview over time, why would the information about them not be given upon a FOIA request? Why only suggest there may be more properties without being so helpful as to uncover them?
Although Hafer did answer some of the questions presented in my article, the exchanges with her were full of misdirected focus and confusion… and that felt frustrating.
At this point, Hafer declined to continue email exchanges, leaving me wondering if it always this difficult for a citizen to get clear, useful and helpful information from the City about a program that impacts so many people on a regular basis.
There’s a lot more to learn about how sweeps are conducted, and we’re going to do our best to get that information and share that with our neighbors— both the housed and unhoused neighbors in St Johns and beyond.
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.