Residents of the Laurelhurst neighborhood have been closely tracking the possible return of homeless campers to two streets bordering Laurelhurst Park since the controversial camp was swept late last month.
Emails exchanged between members of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association since the July 29 sweep have been increasing in frequency and urgency—showing a determination to not let camps reestablish a presence along Southeast Oak Street and 37th Avenue.
Tensions between people living on the sidewalks and other neighborhood residents are common in Portland. But the surveillance by Laurelhurst residents has grown so intense that, last week, a homeless camper called 911 on a local homeowner.
Dozens of emails were shared with WW since the sweep in late July. The emails show a vigilant group of neighbors who have been closely documenting activity at the park they surround to make sure homeless people don’t resume camping there—and an increased alarm that campers are slowly moving back in.
The emails started as fairly mundane after the sweep of the large camp on July 29: neighbors alerting each other to people cutting down the orange flexible fencing that Rapid Response Bioclean—the city’s sweep contractor—put up along the sidewalks to prevent campers from re-pitching tents. The fence came down three times within one week, according to the emails—and neighbors urged one another to document such activity if they witnessed it and report it to police.
Each time the fences came down, staff from Rapid Response re-erected it.
On Aug. 3 one neighbor wrote in an email, “Do you not think I expect any of you to sit out there in your cars guarding the fence. I mention this to give you all a heads up. When in that area at night, keep your eyes and phone ready. A photo of these jokers taking down the fence would be DELIGHTFUL (and useful).”
On Aug. 4, the same woman—the neighborhood association’s safety chair, TJ Browning—wrote: “Less than half an hour ago three women dressed in safety vests took down the fencing around the annex, rolled it up and threw it in an unmarked truck. When questioned by neighbors they claimed to be with the city. A neighbor trying to video them was almost run down by them. They were NOT city workers. I am concerned something is planned for tonight. Possibly a move in?”
She added, “Please anyone who knows anyone in the police who you can call please let them know what is happening.”
Over the next several weeks, dozens of emails shared with WW show an increased neighborhood effort to report the returning car campers to police, the Portland Bureau of Transportation, and park rangers.
“We need to stay vigilant and report, report, report,” Browning wrote at the end of her email on Aug. 23.
Emails show that neighbors became aware that a sweep of the camp at Sunnyside Park would take place on Aug. 25. A portion of the displaced Laurelhurst campers had moved to Sunnyside. One email read, “Tomorrow keep your eyes open for any attempted movement of campers back to the annex and or park. Report immediately.”
The annex is the portion of Laurelhurst Park south of Oak Street and west of César E. Chávez Boulevard.
An email sent from Browning warned of a planned racial justice march the following day, saying that demonstrators could be armed and confrontational: “I strongly advise you to stay away from the park tomorrow during this event.” (Marchers at similar events have open-carried long rifles.)
That march—and the possible return of campers from Sunnyside to Laurelhurst—seemed to escalate the watchfulness of Laurelhurst residents.
Starting last week, the emails document each new tent and car moving back onto the street.
An email sent Friday by a neighbor to all city commissioners, the mayor and other city officials urged them to take action: “I do hope that the city takes decisive action today to restore the fencing and remove the campers immediately. Leaving this not dealt with over the weekend will only result in the 4th iteration of an unmanaged, unruly, dangerous homeless encampment with the urban terrorist group Stop the Sweeps dictating the rules.”
The emails kept pouring in on Friday afternoon: neighbors updating each other on cars and tents moving back onto the streets and into the annex.
One neighbor advised others on how to submit photos to the city’s homeless report portal: “I suggest you follow up with all photographs to show the scale of this in such a short space of time.”
That’s how the confrontation sharpened to the point where a homeless person called 911 on Browning.
Browning alleged in an email that one of the campers became aggressive with her and two others who went to pick up trash on Aug. 27.
“Immediately ‘Robbie’ came and aggressively began yelling and threatening us. It was ugly. As I continued to pick up litter, he threatened to call the police. I said to do it. We all waited as he told his fanciful tale to 911. We would interject some facts occasionally,” she wrote. “Eventually 3 police cars arrived. The campers were told to leave the parking strip or be arrested for trespassing.”
Campers at the annex tell it differently.
WW spoke with three campers at the annex, two of whom said they were told by police Friday morning after the encounter with the three neighbors to leave Oak Street because it was city property and instead go to the grassy annex just on the other side of the fence.
James, one of the campers, tells WW that three neighbors—two men and one woman—started harassing them Friday morning and taking his and his friend’s possessions, saying repeatedly that they were just picking up trash.
“They kept grabbing our stuff and saying it was garbage. They were trying to tear the tent down and saying we were trespassing. They were filming the entire thing, even after we asked them to stop,” James told WW.
James says that one of the campers called 911, and that police came shortly after and asked the campers to move to the annex instead of the street.
Portland Police Bureau spokesman Sgt. Kevin Allen tells WW that “patrol officers did respond to a call there about noon [Friday], but it was a call for help and not a neighborhood complaint. The officers did not make an arrest or determine that a crime had taken place. There were some people inside the snow fencing and officers asked them to move outside the fencing. They complied and the officers left.”
Browning tells WW she was not picking up anything but trash.
But when one of the responding police officers asked that she give her trash bag over so Robbie could sift through it, she says Robbie retrieved a broken pin with a magnet on it. Browning says Robbie then became aggressive again when she tried to pick up a used syringe.
Browning says—and campers told WW this, too—that several of them moved back from Sunnyside Park in order to quarantine because of possible exposure to COVID-19.
“When this started on Thursday there were two tents, on Friday there were four, and now it’s up to eight,” she says. “That’s how ever many people exposing each other and next to a playground. This isn’t safe for the campers. This is not safe.”
In one of the emails last week, a neighbor advised others to park their cars along Oak Street to prevent car campers from moving in.
At 5:30 pm on Friday, a dozen cars in good repair appeared along Oak Street, taking up three-quarters of the available parking space.