During the Virus, Portland Officials Chose to Let This Homeless Camp Take Root. That Could Soon Change.

The Peninsula Crossing Trail is now a campground: dozens of tents, a garden, even a makeshift general store where you can buy a Coke.

Torri Quesinberry, 33, has lived on the streets of Portland since 2015, when she was evicted from her mobile home. And her residence since COVID-19 broke out in Oregon has been in a camp along the Peninsula Crossing Trail, a paved bike and jogging path at the edge of the University Park neighborhood near North Lombard Street.

Quesinberry, who has a warm smile and bleach-blond hair with bright red highlights, lives in a tent she has outfitted with battery-powered LEDs, a bed and a makeshift kitchen that even has a hanging basket for fruit. Outside her tent: pots of petunias, bursting in pink and red.

She's not alone.

Her blue tent sits next to an electric transformer station, just north of where the miniature goat herd called the Belmont Goats grazes in a pasture. And she has many neighbors: dozens of tents, a garden, even a makeshift general store where you can buy a Coke.

Across Lombard, another 25 tents. Combined: some 70 or 80 people.

For several years, Portland City Hall policy would be to uproot this camp as soon as it grew beyond a few people and scatter its residents to other places. But the city suspended such sweeps the first week of March, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

That decision gave Quesinberry and her fellow campers a semi-permanence she hasn't enjoyed since she was evicted and relapsed into heroin addiction.

"I want a house so bad," she says, "I made one out of tarps."

In the past two months, increasingly visible tent camps have grown across the city—in Old Town, along Southeast Powell Boulevard and on the Peninsula Crossing Trail in North Portland, where Quesinberry lives.

The city stopped its usual sweeps of homeless camps in March, after Gov. Kate Brown issued her stay-home order. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised against dispersing homeless camps in the midst of the pandemic. Homeless people are among the most vulnerable to contracting diseases and often have health conditions that put them at risk of getting much sicker from the coronavirus.

Police have stepped in where they have found criminal activity, particularly in Old Town. But the city's decision not to enforce the usual rules gave way to larger camps—and the problems that often accompany those places.

With Multnomah County planning to reopen in the next week or so, it's only a matter of time before Mayor Ted Wheeler decides that Quesinberry's and other camps have to go. WW has learned City Hall has drafted a plan to resume evicting residents of homeless camps, but has paused in finalizing the language and enacting it—because city resources are strapped by the recent nightly protests against police brutality and racism.

Quesinberry knows she will soon be told to pack up and leave, a situation that casts into sharp relief the contrast between the region's ambitions and the immediate choices leaders face.

Last month, the region passed a $250 million-a-year tax measure to address the root causes of homelessness. Yet the city is poised to return to the controversial practice of sweeps, which no one disputes is anything other than triage.

"It's been a failed strategy," says Israel Bayer, a longtime advocate for homeless people in Portland. "Sweeps are police violence. It falls on mayors to change course."

It is perhaps one small measure of how much the virus has upended social norms that a return to sweeping homeless camps—business as usual in Portland for decades—is no longer a political certainty. Advocates argue this is a moment to reimagine the city's approach to addressing homelessness.

"We can do better than choosing the better of bad options," says Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, which publishes a newspaper sold by homeless people. "We are in a transformative moment. My God, we are going to start sweeping—knowing this is counter to all public health advice. It feels cruel."

The first camper arrived along the Peninsula Crossing Trail in December. But the camp exploded this spring, when the city halted sweeps.

The bike path now looks more like a state park campground: Amid green overgrowth, tents are spaced several feet from each other. There's even a fire pit.

Most of Quesinberry's fellow campers are women. They chose to live together for their own protection. They have started a garden of potted tomato plants and strung a hammock between trees. A long table in the center of camp provides a shared dinner space. On a hot afternoon late last month, they served orange popsicles.

The campers use bags of crushed and dry ice to keep their perishables cold. A porta potty sits just south of camp, though Quesinberry uses a toilet with a plastic bag, set up in her tent. A city contractor regularly picks up garbage, including specially designated human waste.

The camp leaders have set rules: no noise after 11 pm, no more than two trash bags outside a tent. Three violations of the rules and the other women evict scofflaws, they say.

The camp doesn't have a name, but Quesinberry runs a store she dubbed Pay Here. She posted a chalkboard in front of her tent: "SPEND $3, GET $1 MORE FREE!" She sells bike lights, batteries, cigarette lighters, lighter fluid for refills, potato chips, candy bars and soda.

There's a dark side to life in Quesinberry's camp. Drug use is open: This reporter observed a camper packing a glass pipe with an unidentified substance. No one in the camps wore a face mask during the week of WW's visits, or reported being worried about contracting the coronavirus.

And Raafat Abdel Famad, who runs a used car dealership on Hayden Island, says thieves who have stolen autos from him live in the camps.

Famad says nine cars—including two 2017 Cadillac Esplanades, worth an estimated $55,000 apiece—were stolen from his lot. Two of the cars turned up near the camp last week. He says police never made an arrest—they couldn't make a case against the man they believed did it. "It's crazy here in Portland," Famad says.

As soon as this week, Multnomah County will become the last county in Oregon to begin reopening from the governor's stay-home orders. That's creating pressure on the mayor, both from business owners, who want Wheeler to remove tents from their doorsteps, and neighborhoods that want tents gone from parks as the city starts to reopen.

"Unsurprisingly, there are ongoing concerns from the business community about the impact our homelessness crisis has on the local economy," says City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly.

While homeowners near Peninsula Crossing Trail do not have a vocal constituency at City Hall, other parts of Portland seeing a growing number of tents do.

In Old Town and downtown, business and property owners have been outspoken. Downtown property owner Greg Goodman wrote an unvarnished letter to City Hall two weeks ago.

"While COVID and homelessness are major issues, it doesn't condone open drug use, vandalism, and crime being permitted," he wrote to the mayor and Portland City Council in a May 29 email. "If beds are available, it should not be optional for people on the street not to use them."

In North Portland, neighbors in Overlook are concerned about a homeless camp in nearby Madrona Park, which suffered a brush fire June 3 that homeowners say was started by campers.

"Please remove these camps from this neighborhood public park," wrote Chris Trejbal, president of the Overlook Neighborhood Association, in a June 3 email to City Hall. "They prevent Portlanders from enjoying their public spaces, which is something people need at this time of social distancing.…This area is designated a wildfire hazard zone for a reason. We got lucky this time. Let's not press our luck."

There is also a legitimate concern about large homeless camps spreading the coronavirus. So far, a dozen people in Multnomah County who are homeless, or were within the last six months, have been diagnosed with COVID-19. But in other cities, the coronavirus has had a much deeper effect on people living on the street.

Local officials expect things could get worse: Homeless camps started expanding even though Portland hasn't yet experienced an increase in residential evictions since the pandemic started. In other words, COVID-19 hasn't made more people homeless, but it could soon. ("There's nothing to suggest there are more homeless people in our community right now," says Wheeler's spokesman Tim Becker. "COVID has highlighted the sad reality of how many people live outside in our region.")

To make matters worse, health officials expect a second COVID-19 wave to descend by autumn.

While the pressure mounts for Mayor Wheeler to act, the CDC guidance is less than decisive. "If individual housing options are not available, allow people who are living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are," the CDC advised.

Wheeler's office says it is trying to strike a balance, but provided few logistical details.

"The county and city have been most successful with an approach that combines outreach, common-sense cleanup protocols, and enforcement against illegal activity," says Becker. "When COVID emerged, the basic advice was to leave people where they were to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. [But] people have started concentrating in larger and larger groups, which isn't safe."

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury says the city must act gently or risk spreading the virus as it scatters homeless people. "When the city decides to begin addressing some of these camping issues," Kafoury says, "we know that minimizing the dispersal of people will prevent the potential spread of COVID."

Portland's political landscape is changing rapidly. This week, two racial justice nonprofits, Portland African American Leadership Foundation and Unite Oregon, issued demands for police reforms in the hours after Police Chief Jami Resch resigned. Among the demands: End all sweeps of homeless camps.

And the camps at Peninsula Crossing are drawing more attention. The Oregonian dropped by last month for a story. A few weeks ago, Sarah Iannarone, who is running against Wheeler in the November mayoral runoff, paid a visit to Peninsula Crossing Trail. She's among the critics of sweeping camps during COVID—at least this camp.

"You can't start sweeping people when they've been allowed to create stability," she says. "You have to have somewhere for them to go."

Among her solutions: more sanctioned camps in neighborhoods that might have the resources to support people in distress.

At the same time, Iannarone acknowledges she would be furious if she were a business owner in Old Town. "I'm hearing reports of open-air drug dealing that is more aggressive than historically," she says. "I am seeing intense need for food and hygiene. There is trash and waste accumulation. It's certainly concentrated."

Sheila McGarry had a bouquet of balloons hanging outside her tent, a memento from her 60th birthday celebration.

On a recent evening, she was sitting outside her tent on one of three dark hardwood dining room chairs with red cushions. Her nails were painted a pale green. She changes her nail color more often than most women change their underwear, joked a fellow camper. It's an easy and inexpensive way to feel good, she explained.

McGarry, who grew up in St. Johns, was the first woman to move into the camp—around Christmas. After her mother died five years ago, she has been outside more than not. She grew up in a large family with nine brothers and sisters, so she likes that people joined her.

She made shrimp salad for dinner for everyone in camp; someone else had brought popsicles for the unseasonably warm, 90-degree day. (Another camper had cooked barbecue ribs the previous night.) A friend stopped to chat and took a popsicle from the main table.

McGarry is on Social Security disability for a mental health condition, and she would like an affordable apartment. She's working on it, with Northwest Pilot Project. She took the first step: getting an ID.

What she doesn't want is to be swept down the trail. "I've been here five months, six months. I've had apartments for less time than that," she says, calling sweeps the "scariest part of being homeless. I'll go, but I don't know where I am going to go to."