Hit the Highway

The state may evict more homeless than the city but lacks a strategy to offer help.

On Oct. 3, the Oregon Department of Transportation invited news media to watch as it removed "trespassers" camping on a stretch of its land between Johnson Creek and Interstate 205. 

TV cameras and news reporters flocked to cover the eviction of about 30 homeless people, who had been camping on the state-owned land just north of where Southeast Flavel Street passes under I-205.

But it wasn't much of a solution: Most of the homeless simply moved a few hundred yards to another piece of ODOT land near  Flavel and Southeast 92nd Avenue. On Oct. 21, ODOT crews swept in again to boot out the campers (this time without hyping the story for the media).

A resident named Dave (he chose not to share his last name) was one of the 30 people moved when ODOT crews arrived, accompanied by Multnomah County sheriff deputies and an inmate work crew tasked with removing abandoned clothing, trash and other debris.

"It's a hopeless journey," Dave says. He was forcibly moved from a camp in May and again earlier this month. "We feel hopeless because we know wherever we wind up tonight we'll be kicked out again in a couple weeks."

While Portland fixates on Right 2 Dream Too's highly publicized move from Old Town to the Pearl District, it's the state of Oregon that may be the biggest evictor—and relocater—of homeless campers in the city.

Officials say they clean out as many as 50 homeless camps a month in the Portland area from under bridges and other wedges of land they own near freeways and highways.

But ODOT lacks any coherent strategy for helping people it evicts, and officials see no role for the agency to do more than simply kick out people who camp on public land.

"We realize the trespassers don't have many options," ODOT spokeswoman Kimberly Dinwiddie says, “but it’s our land, and we’re responsible for it.” 

Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots, a newspaper that addresses homelessness, says ODOT should be doing more.

"It becomes a displacement issue," Bayer says. "It creates challenges in providing services by making it harder for outreach organizations to connect with people on the street."

After the Oct. 3 sweep, ODOT officials cited damage done by the campers along Johnson Creek, including "contamination of water quality, a rock dam blocking fish migration, removal of trees and riparian vegetation, [and] damaged stream bank."

"The creek has also been used for bathing, laundry and other human activities," the ODOT press release added.

Dinwiddie says ODOT is currently looking for solutions to protect the state's property and help the homeless.

ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton says his agency has seen an increase in homeless people this year. He adds that his agency's maintenance crews hand out the names and addresses of homeless shelters to people camped on state property.

"ODOT is a government agency that are stewards of the community," Bayer says. "They're creating more work for themselves. Because they're not addressing the problem, and that allows it to grow.”