By THACHER SCHMID and RACHEL MONAHAN
A nearly two-mile stretch of bike trails and former wilderness now serves as home to hundreds of Portland's homeless—making it the largest encampment in the Pacific Northwest and possibly the nation.
The Springwater Corridor has been a center of homelessness in East Portland for years, but the line of tents along the bike path has grown exponentially in the past six months.
Advocates estimate the Springwater Corridor is home to as many as 500 people every night, most of them concentrated in that two-mile stretch.
It's likely the largest camp in the Northwest and possibly the nation, since Seattle cleared out much of their largest unauthorized homeless camp, the Jungle. An official count of the Jungle in May found 201 tents and more than 336 people living along two miles. It's now down to around 200 people, say advocates.
The dubious distinction of largest homeless camp in the country previously fell to a camp in California's Silicon Valley. When that camp was cleared in 2014, it had 278 people.
(Advocates say the area of downtown Los Angeles known as Skid Row has a much larger concentration of homeless people living outdoors than any site in Portland. But L.A.'s downtown district, with its mix of social services and people sleeping on sidewalks, doesn't fit the traditional definitions of a camp or tent city.)
Official numbers are hard to come by for the nation's largest homeless camp, and some advocates dispute whether the Springwater's two-mile stretch should be considered a single camp or multiple camps. Often there's only an official number after a sweep.
"Once they get to that size, they inevitably get swept like the Hooversville of old," says Paul Boden, executive and organizing director of Western Regional Advocacy Project, a San Francisco-based group that supports the homeless.
"Being by yourself and hidden, which is what's expected of you when you're homeless, leaves you really vulnerable," Boden says. "Like anybody else, homeless people tend to congregate, but that's illegal."
But in Portland, Mayor Charlie Hales in February legalized camping in tents on city property in groups of up to six people. Parks were supposed to be forbidden for camping under the policy.
The city has conducted several small sweeps along the Springwater Corridor, but has to yet to disperse the largest camps there, despite the fact that camping on the bike path violates both of Hales' policies. Instead, the city launched a months-long process to figure out what to do.
There's been little progress on figuring out where Springwater residents should go.
A similar problem is facing Seattle, where officials threatened a full sweep of the Jungle, but backed off. There are two hundred people remaining there, says Timothy Harris, founding director of Seattle's newspaper for the homeless, Real Change.
"'Outreach to where?' is the recurring phrase around here," says Harris. "Unless you have services and housing to offer people in a timely way it doesn't help a lot."
The last official count of the Springwater was in April, say city officials. The Portland Police Bureau estimated 141 dwellings along the Springwater. They didn't count people, but one advocacy organization estimates from its outreach work in the area that there are far more people now than dwellings.
"I have heard estimates as high as 500 people living on the Springwater," says Tony Bernal, Director of Funding and Public Policy at Transition Projects.
There is a collectivist mentality along the trail, one self-described "mouthpiece" for the camps says.
"We give a shit about each other," says Crash Anarchy, a Springwater camper, former aerospace steelworker and self-appointed spokesperson for "The Headquarters," the largest of grouping of tents. "A lot of people don't realize the kind of community we have down here. We finally have a spot where we can live safely."
Anarchy—one of a disproportionate percentage of homeless people who are transgender—wore a V For Vendetta mask during an interview with WW. Anarchy took a break from epoxying a cracked bong to show off a "minimalist" tent that's been home for five and a half years in the area.
A neighbor's tent features five-foot sunflowers in a lovingly tended garden. Other sites incorporate heavy furniture and bark dust paths.
Many in the camps diligently clean up, and use city-sponsored dumpsters and porta-potties, but there are also piles of garbage and a fleet of shopping carts. Campers tell stories of barely containing dangerous fires.
A neighbor, Tom Alvarado, says the situation is becoming "crazy … apocalyptic," with feces left on the bike path and aggression towards passersby.
It's unclear how many people and how many different agencies it would take to sweep or relocate the Springwater camp. Previous sweeps have moved campers east. A thicket of governmental agencies and work groups has grown around the Springwater, running into opposition from neighborhood associations to the creation of any sanctioned camps.
Shannon Singleton, executive director of housing nonprofit JOIN, believes there may be a future opportunity to relocate people into a city-sanctioned, self-governed camp in a safer location.
"I'm hopeful that there's going to be options that look like a Right 2 Dream Too and a Dignity Village, and aren't necessarily mass, facility-based shelter," Singleton says, "that we've got a range of options for folks where they can get a safe night's sleep, but not be tied to it being kind of the traditional [shelter] model."