Just across from Sauvie Island and nestled against both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, lies historic St Johns. This area boasts a a commercial hub and many of the amenities of a small town. It also encompasses the St Johns and Cathedral Park neighborhoods.
In 1902, the expansion of the railroad into St Johns revitalized the area and brought a variety of manufacturing companies to take up residence along the river. It also brought jobs, people and ideas into what became the northwest tip of Portland— something which continues to this day.
Many remaining industrial-related warehouses are located along N. Columbia Blvd, past Pier Park and the Smith & Bybee Wetlands. The BNSF railroad tracks are what define the southern border of St Johns, separating it from the rest of North Portland.
Much has changed since the original St. John’s post office opened in 1875, except for the beauty of the river and the entrepreneurial spirit which still imbues the neighborhood, evidenced in the array of local businesses.
The St Johns Neighborhood Association is a hub for volunteering in the neighborhood. They have regular trash cleanups, work with Habitat for Humanities, and help maintain the area’s urban forest. Visit their page for more information.
Marrow PDX is “a youth-centered community space, with a focus on education, the arts, and activism.” Neighbors can book a show, host a exhibition, volunteer at current events, or submit ideas for new classes / programming.
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 ResponseBio 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.
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.
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.
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.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and Village Portland reporter Lesley McLam and I had a good time catching up with old friends and learning more about what’s happening with the Portland Harbor Superfund site.
Learn more about the issue and how to get involved at this Village Portland @ St. Johns link promoting the event. There is definitely more work to be done cleaning up the river, and you can sign up for emails to stay in touch with the issue.
Hosted by Donovan Smith, there were a ton of great musicians there: Mat Randol, Swiggle Mandela, Talilo Marfil, Amenta Abioto, Jonny Cool, Corinthia Bethune, Westcoast Blackbear, Nikole Lashel, J Prodigy and a poem by an elder Wilma Alcock.
There was also this a group of rappers who call themselves The Avengers:
Portland Harbor Community Coalition:
Founded in 2012, we are a group of individual community groups elevating the most-impacted groups (Native Americans, African-Americans/Black, immigrants, and houseless) in the billion dollar federal cleanup of the eleven mile Willamette River Superfund site, Portland Harbor.
Keep in touch with updates on the Superfund project from the Environmental Protection Agency and read all the public comments here.
Earlier this month, KBOO and Village Portland reporter Lesley McLam interviewed DonovanSmith, festival organizer and Portland Harbor Community Coalition media coordinator, about the Portland Harbor Superfund site and the festival.
At the link in the photo below, the interview with Smith begins @ 5:50. They begin discussing the music festival @ 22:45.
Smith said the federal comment period about the Superfund site is over, but still recommended that concerned neighbors demand more resources for the river from Oregon Governor Kate Brown through this Earth Justice site:
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).
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.
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