Neighborhood association and nonprofit reach handshake deal with city to fence off recently evacuated homeless camps

The Pearl District Neighborhood Association and a nonprofit garbage collection organization have reached an informal agreement with the city of Portland to place bark dust, fencing and “Do Not Enter” signs at camps without -shed recently swept through the city along Interstate 405.

This non-profit – We Heart Portland – has partnered with neighborhood volunteers in the Pearl District for the past two months to give a six-block facelift along I-405 in the Northwest of Portland and install other tent camping deterrents.

As Portland residents debate Mayor Ted Wheeler’s executive order banning tent camping along city streets, known as Safe Routes to School, the volunteer effort in the Pearl District shows how the precedent the mayor’s executive order – prohibiting camping along highways – works in practice.

In some places, people swept off the shoulders of the highway simply return to their previous campsites. In others, a league of volunteers coordinates with the city to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Stan Penkin, president of the neighborhood association, said volunteers flooded the city’s camps complaints portal in a bid to expedite the cleanup of city camps along the targeted six-block stretch. by the groups.

After the city posted the camp for removal, a city staff member alerted Penkin and We Heart Portland and volunteers urged campers to seek shelter before it was swept away and offered to help. to pick up the garbage. Of the roughly 40 tents swept away, Penkin says, he estimates the group referred 20 to 25 people to the shelter.

Then volunteers spread bark dust over the encampment, surrounded it with makeshift twine fences and put up signs telling people not to enter, saying it was a project. beautification of the neighborhood.

A staff member from the mayor’s office confirms WW that the city has worked with the neighborhood association to alert them when the city clears a camp but no formal agreement has been reached in writing.

The unofficial partnership to clear tent camps and take extra steps to ensure they don’t return is fraught with controversy.

We Heart Portland is an offshoot of We Heart Seattle, a non-profit organization created in late 2020 by Andrea Suarez. The Seattle City Council slammed the organization last year for its tactics, with several city councilors saying its work borders on harassment of the homeless. A council member compared it to a burglary.

WW reported on the nonprofit’s arrival in Portland in May.

Suarez is a controversial figure in Seattle. She and Portland Chapter President Kevin Dahlgren have appeared on conservative podcasts to talk about what they call the “homeless industrial complex” and to claim that self-help groups enable homeless people to be too generous with food and tents. This drew the ire of housing advocates in Seattle.

“We are truth tellers and we challenge the status quo, and it hasn’t always gone well. … Hard work is a virtue,” Suarez said. WW in May. “There’s this element of, ‘Somebody clean up and do something for me, and I’m starting to think that makes more sense than lying here on the trash and sticking a needle in my arm.'”

The embankments along Interstate 405 are owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation but are maintained by the City of Portland, per a 2019 agreement. ODOT spokesman David House said any new infrastructure or installation, such as fences and signs, would require ODOT approval. The agency could not immediately say whether the city or neighborhood association had applied for permits.

The unofficial handshake deal is an example of City Hall’s eagerness to remove homeless encampments from the city’s economic and social hubs – and the groups are providing a beautification the city doesn’t have to. pay.

On Friday morning, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced an executive ban on camping along streets deemed safe such as walking and bike paths leading to school, an extensive network of roads designated by the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Wheeler’s decision to exercise her executive powers, which do not require the consent of her fellow Portland City Council commissioners, comes as Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty – the council member most opposed to camp sweeps – is in holidays. (The mayor’s office says the timing of Wheeler’s statement had nothing to do with Hardesty’s absence.)

Hardesty spokesman Matt McNally said his office was not made aware of the executive order until Wednesday evening: “Our office was not otherwise consulted or advised of this statement.”

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