City Commissioners Balk at Details of Portland’s New Rules for Removing Homeless Camps

“Hardesty is concerned that these protocols grant too much power to law enforcement to decide when a space should be swept and for potentially vague reasons.”

Lents Neighborhood Tents along an East Portland bike path. (Chris Nesseth) (Chris Nesseth)

A unified front presented by Portland City Hall on removing unhoused campers from sidewalks and parks lasted less than 24 hours, as city commissioners on Thursday began voicing reservations about the aggressiveness of the plan.

On Wednesday morning, the Portland Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program—the name for the city’s team that performs homeless camp sweeps—announced it would remove tents from city sidewalks more swiftly. The city largely halted the practice at the onset of the pandemic last spring and only gradually resumed camp removals over the past year.

The program announced an expanded set of criteria that warrant removal, including spaces that have eight or more structures, that are blocking sidewalks, bus stations, walking paths, building entrances, and where criminal activity is reported. Also included in the new criteria is if the camp is blocking ADA access, if untreated sewage is present, and if biohazardous materials are present.

A joint statement from Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioners Mingus Mapps, Carmen Rubio, Dan Ryan and Jo Ann Hardesty gave the impression that all of City Council was on board with the new criteria.

“The Commissioners, Mayor, and their staffs reflected on existing unhoused camps around Portland, solicited feedback from housed and unhoused Portlanders, and worked to develop responsive protocols that balance these competing elements,” they wrote. “These new protocols reprioritize public health and safety among houseless Portlanders and aim to improve sanitary conditions until we have additional shelter beds and housing available.”

But WW has since learned that not all commissioners are happy with the fine print.

At 11 am Thursday, Hardesty told WW that she is unsatisfied with some details of the plan. “I provided direct feedback on these protocols,” she said in an email, “and while there were some changes made due to my comments the end result is still not how I would have written them.”

She added: “Even as we try to focus and retool HUCIRP there are reports of some wanting to aggressively sweep houseless community members outside the scope of these standards as reported by WW yesterday online.”

Hardesty is referring to this week’s report in WW—hours before the sweeps announcement—that downtown law firms and property owners are pressuring the mayor’s office to remove homeless camps from downtown before lawyers return to their offices this summer. In that story, mayoral aide Sam Adams confirmed he pitched law partners on a proposal to create safe sleeping sites around the city, and asked the partners to voice support for moving downtown campers to those places.

That plan has not widely been reported, but Sam Adams told WW it’s currently being discussed by city commissioners. Indeed, the joint statement release May 20 said city bureaus are currently identifying city lands across the city that might be appropriate for safe camping sites.

But those conversations appear to have alarmed Hardesty, especially in tandem with a swift announcement that sweeps would resume.

Hardesty’s office provided notes she made on the protocols, prior to them being confirmed, that show her displeasure with some of the criteria.

In essence, Hardesty was displeased by the discretionary power given to law enforcement about what conditions warranted a sweep. The protocol she most took issue with was camps being swept where reports of criminal activity was noted, if there was conspicuous drug use, and if “credible reports of criminal behavior were verified by the police bureau and sheriff’s office.”

“Hardesty is concerned that these protocols grant too much power to law enforcement to decide when a space should be swept and for potentially vague reasons,” Hardesty’s feedback read. “We would like law enforcement references to be removed and the scoring focus to be retooled around fire and public health.”

Hardesty also said that the new threshold for removing camps of eight or more structures was “unreasonably low” and that “we would strongly urge this threshold be reconsidered,” especially in anticipation of the eviction moratorium expiring July 1.

Hardesty’s requests were not reflected in the final iteration of the plan.

While Hardesty wasn’t entirely pleased with the plan, she said: “I appreciated the opportunity to weigh in on these changes and believe these new protocols are a step in the right direction to ensuring HUCIRP is focused on the health and safety of the houseless and not being an instrument to forcefully shuffle people from one corner of the city to the next.”

Meanwhile, Rubio’s office says she supported the plan on the understanding it wouldn’t necessarily increase camp sweeps.

Rubio’s spokesperson, Will Howell, says her expectation of the plan when they signed it was that it would not necessarily lead to a huge acceleration of sweeps: “We didn’t sign off on the idea that there was suddenly going to be a whole lot more sweeps, we signed off because there’s been a procedural problem,” Howell says. “The point was to empower the folks at the HUCIRP to make these decisions more cleanly without having to haggle with five different commissioners who have different expectations.”

Howell says “I know what the memo says in terms of accelerating these, but our understanding was not that this was going to be a massive acceleration. The point in doing this exercise was to come up with principles that we could all agree on that would be parameters.”

A spokesperson for Mapps’ office said Mapps was on board with the new protocols. Ryan’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Wheeler faces intense criticism from downtown business owners who believe City Hall has been too lax in removing campsites from their doorsteps. As the city reopens from pandemic closures, and people return to daily commerce and recreation, the mayor faces a dilemma: how to remove tent camps that took root during a year of shutdowns, without being cruel to people who have nowhere to go.

A spokesperson for the mayor’s office says Wheeler stands by the new protocols.

“We stand by our participation in the joint statement. The protocol language gives HUCIRP more tools to facilitate achieving their goal. The language doesn’t include the specific amount of operational scaling up that may occur,” said spokesman Timothy Becker.

Indeed, the protocol does not specify to what degree the sweeps will be increased. But it does note that where campsites meet at least one of the updated criteria, staff will “begin to immediately post” about removals, and that staff is taking a “more assertive” approach to removing camps.

In announcing the tougher rules triggering camp removal, city program managers said previous efforts to control the scale of sidewalk have been “ineffective.” Since last summer, they changed protocol to give campers 48 hours after an initial warning to vacate the site before a full sweep was conducted and prioritized only very large sites.

But program managers say some of those sweeps failed to keep people from repopulating the sites, noting that “encampments return to a state of non-compliance within a matter of days, if not hours, depending on the location.”

The statement said “Unfortunately, we have been unable to successfully manage public spaces to a standard accepted as satisfactory with the tools we currently have available.”

One recent ally of the mayor’s plans to open temporary shelters in neighborhoods is baffled that the city is starting to break up sidewalk campsites before establishing places for displaced people to go.

Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran tells WW she’s “dismayed by yesterday’s announcement about a more aggressive approach to sweeps. The approach we need to be taking is about harm reduction, and displacing people and giving them no place to go causes harm.”

“The irony is that it doesn’t even solve the problem. We spend millions of dollars to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic,” Meieran says.

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