Hales' Sidewalk Sweep is Evicting Homeless Camps Under Interstate Overpasses

Mayor Charlie Hales' sweep of homeless camps on Portland sidewalks is rousting more than just downtown panhandlers and street kids.

It's also evicting small tent and cardboard box encampments from under Portland's two main Interstate highway overpasses, on each side of the Willamette River.

In the first 24 hours of Portland Police officers posting no-camping signs and issuing citations in three city quadrants, most public attention has focused on the aggressive "summer travelers" and homeless protesters in the downtown blocks surrounding City Hall.

But the crackdown also extends to two semi-permanent camps outside downtown: a makeshift cardboard-box-and-tent city beneath Interstate 5 in the Industrial Eastside, and a smaller series of encampments centered around shopping carts underneath the Interstate 405 overpass in Northwest Portland.

Neither site has attracted the controversy that surrounds downtown panhandling. But the two locations are both in the Police Bureau's Central Precinct—and each is a highly visible homeless city less than a block from upscale destinations the city has redeveloped, the Eastbank Esplanade and the Pearl District.

The city posted no-camping orders under both overpasses Wednesday, and made arrests at both locations. The mayor's office says police chose locations where citizens had complained.

"The places that were targeted yesterday were 'hotspots' of complaint where people said they couldn't use the sidewalk because people were using it as a domicile," says Hales' spokesman Dana Haynes. "They complained this sidewalk is nothing but long rows of garbage, and is unpassable."

But Israel Bayer, executive director of Street Roots and a homelessness advisor to Hales, says arrests beneath the overpasses have convinced him Hales is "posturing," and doesn't have the plan he promised this spring for addressing homelessness.

"It's my conclusion that there is no long-term plan on homelessness at City Hall, only what's right in front them," Bayer tells WW. "You can't just sweep hard to reach homeless people off the streets without talking about a serious investment in housing and expect real outcomes."

Haynes says the mayor says the sidewalk sweep is separate from Hales' homelessness plan.

"It is not a long-term solution, nor is it intended to be," Haynes says. "The mayor is talking to as many people as he can think of about a problem he does not believe is unsolvable." 

The logistics of evicting these sidewalk camps are nearly as complicated as the politics.

City officials have posted Portland Bureau of Transportation-emblazoned no-camping signs under both overpasses saying all possessions must be removed by Aug. 14.

But the sidewalks are on Oregon Department of Transportation land—and ODOT signed a settlement with the Oregon Law Center in 2011 that any homeless camp removal must have at least 10 days notice. The citations handed out by police at these locations give a deadline of Aug. 17.

Metal ODOT signs under the Interstate 5 bridge warn that overnight camping is illegal. But sprawling encampments—often decorated with yard umbrellas—are a fixture along the Esplanade.

Jimbo Nelson and his girlfriend, who identified herself as Gypsy, live under a pastel green tarp under the overpass near Southeast Salmon Street. They say they've lived here, on and off, for five years.

Nelson says police arrived early Wednesday morning and told him to leave.

"They just rolled through here and told us they'd be back tomorrow," Nelson says. "They just posted notices and told they'd be back tomorrow to clean up the sidewalks—meaning us."

This morning, Nelson and Gypsy (who has a broken arm from a storage-locker accident) were tidying up their campsite, which includes blankets, lawn chairs and a white plastic cooler of Kibble for their dog, Athena. They said they were prepared to leave, but hoped the police wouldn't make them.

"We don't really have any place to go," Gypsy says.

Willamette Week's journalism is funded, in part, by our readers. Your help supports local, independent journalism that informs, educates, and engages our community. Become a WW supporter.