This month, Portland City Hall received an unexpected gift from one of its trash hauling contractors. A 6-foot dumpster.
Next month, it may also get an unexpected charge on an invoice.
It’s from Jaimy Wacker, who owns Wacker Sanitary.
Wacker, 44, has a trash pickup route in North Portland along Interstate 5 near Overlook Park. This summer, he noticed something he’d seen for years, but never to this extent: homeless encampments littered with trash.
So, last month, he walked into one campsite along the west staircase of the North Failing Street pedestrian bridge with an offer for its residents: He’d install a dumpster there so campers could dispose of their trash.
“The first thing I said was, ‘I’m Jaimy Wacker, I do not work for the city, I’m just a garbage man.’ And, in fact, I look extremely like a garbage man,” Wacker says. He does—as he leans off the open door of his garbage truck, he sports boots, jeans, and a trucker hat.
In early October, he dropped off the dumpster, lettered with his company’s name. It sits on gravel beside the pedestrian bridge at the end of Failing Street. Once a week, Wacker empties the dumpster. Each time, he says, the nearby camp looks tidy.
“I even sent a picture of the container to city officials,” Wacker recalls. “I said, ‘Holy smokes! There’s no garbage on the ground. It’s all in the container.’”
On one Monday afternoon, the dumpster was about three-quarters filled with Styrofoam containers, milk jugs, empty propane tanks, and aluminum foil. A cat carrier hung from one of the dumpster’s handles.
Beth Armstrong, who lives in a nearby van with her two cats, says she no longer has to let her trash pile up for weeks and then drive it to a dumpster at a freight depot. “People keep it clean,” she says.
Prior to the Wacker dumpster, Armstrong says the site had only a stone trash can that was perpetually overflowing. “That thing was a mess,” she says. “The rats got so bad that people would sometimes light it on fire to get rid of the trash and rats.”
It was that trash can that led Wacker to place the dumpster near Failing Street. He says he emailed city officials: “‘We need to get this trash can out of here. It’s going to be trouble,’” he recalls saying. “They wanted to keep it.”
So Wacker may bill the city this month in “tipping fees” for trash service and for the cost of the dumpster rental—even though city officials never agreed to his idea. And he says he would place dumpsters near other highly visible campsites if the city compensated him fairly.
But the city is not interested. (It has no intention of paying for the Wacker dumpster.) It contends dumpsters don’t work to reduce trash for people sleeping outside.
Why? Because housed Portlanders dump their trash in dumpsters near homeless camps, according to the city bureau that manages the camps.
“We have not found this to be an effective use of resources. Time and time again, we see proof that housed individuals use dumpsters to get rid of their household trash and large items, such as furniture and appliances,” says Heather Hafer, spokeswoman for the Portland Office of Management and Finance. “Once, we even found a boat.”
This summer, the city placed dumpsters at a handful of camps: one along Southeast Powell Boulevard, another at Delta Park, and several along the Springwater Corridor. Hafer says the dumpsters were overwhelmed with large household items like furniture, tires and appliances. Only one remains, along Southeast Division Street.
“We do not have funds to dump household items for those who are housed,” Hafer says. “There are so many large household items that get dumped there that, every two months, we have to pay to have those larger items removed so we can access the dumpster.”
The city also fears that placing dumpsters near camps may attract more homeless people to those camps.
As visible homelessness increased in Portland during the COVID-19 pandemic amid a steep reduction in camp sweeps, so did neighbor complaints of trash piling up near the places people sleep outside. Sam Adams, a top aide to Mayor Ted Wheeler, admits the city’s efforts to address the problem haven’t been enough to manage trash at hundreds of camps: “We’re not doing a consistent job of it, if at all.”
Last week, Adams shared details of a plan with WW that is being discussed by the mayor’s office.
Instead of dumpsters, the city wants to conduct weekly trash-bag pickup at selected sites. Camps would receive trash bags and fill them throughout the week, and then neighborhood-specific contractors would pick up the bags weekly and dump them.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is also engaged in those discussions, and while her office says details are yet to be cemented, she supports more hyperlocalized trash pickup in which neighborhood contractors are responsible for particular areas.
Adams says providing bags to camps has been the best method so far that the city has tried: “That seems to provide the best service and the least amount of pitfalls. Regular cans or dumpsters often get emptied out, because one person’s trash is another person’s potential useful find.”
City officials have heard so much outcry about illegal trash dumping across the city that Wheeler made trash cleanup one of his top five priorities for the year. Trash pickup is currently done through a patchwork of city, county and Metro efforts that have struggled to keep up.
(Over the past six months, Metro’s illegal dumping program has received more than 4,000 complaints of illegal dumps across the city. Only 30% of those reports were linked to houseless people. Its program has cleaned up 310 tons of waste in that same time frame. The city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program picked up 697,000 pounds of trash during campsite cleanups and removals in September alone.)
It’s too simplistic to equate homeless camping and trash, but the two issues are related—in part because people living outdoors have no reliable garbage service.
City contractor Central City Concern runs a program called Clean Start, which responds to campsite and garbage reports filed with the city. It cleans up trash and drops off bags for campers to fill when requested, but there’s a catch: When Clean Start crews visit, they evaluate the site for the city, potentially leading to a sweep.
The hodgepodge of current efforts largely require workers or volunteers to decide what is and isn’t trash—a problem that led to the city getting sued for throwing away objects that homeless residents say were personal belongings.
By providing trash bags, Wheeler and Hardesty hope to achieve the same goal Wacker is chasing: self-sufficient garbage service that lets campers, instead of city workers, decide what they want to throw out.
Adams tells WW the city will continue to “be agile” and experiment with various solutions. He says city officials were overwhelmed by the volume of trash that piled up during the pandemic, and are only now digging out.
Prior to this year, Adams says, most of the city’s trash removal efforts were not centered on camp-related refuse. This year, Adams says, that needed to change: “What we’ve come to find out after we’ve picked up a lot of the city is that when people complain about trash, they’re complaining about a houseless encampment.”
Terrance Moses runs the nonprofit Neighbors Helping Neighbors, which helps pick up trash in and around Kenton. He says the city needs to “give campers back the authority to clean up their own area”—and thinks the dumpsters can help achieve that.
“What’s not working is the city’s slow response times and their lack of communication with neighborhood organizations. They’re only focused in specific areas of town which are related to the business corridors,” Moses says.”You need to let [campers] know that you care, and you’re letting them know that this is their responsibility, this is your home.”