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Reporter's Notebook: The Homeless Camp On My Block


Homeless campers have carved stairs down to Johnson Creek and use the creek to wash clothes and mattresses.

Homeless campers have carved stairs down to Johnson Creek and use the creek to wash clothes and mattresses.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

No part of Portland has been as transformed more by Mayor Charlie Hales’ decision to allow public camping as the Springwater Corridor Trail.

OPB reporter Amelia Templeton lives just a few blocks from the homeless camps that now clutter the bike and pedestrian path from inner Southeast Portland to Boring. This is the first of two stories. In the second part, we’ll visit a homeless camp on the Springwater Corridor for a different perspective.

Springwater Corridor Trail Homeless Camps

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales says the city will move hundreds of homeless campers off the Springwater Corridor Trail.

Last week, a TV news helicopter woke me up. It sounded like it was circling over our house, near 82nd Avenue. The fire on the Springwater trail had gone out, but a breeze was dropping charred black leaves on our lawn.

Investigators haven’t determined the cause. My neighbors believe the homeless people who live along Johnson Creek started the fire.

“At night it looks like fireflies, because everybody’s got their headlamps. You can pinpoint the camps because of the campfires,” says James Tompkins.

James and Jay Tompkins. Their backyard faces the creek, and the homeless campers.

James and Jay Tompkins. Their backyard faces the creek, and the homeless campers.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

James and his wife, Jay Tompkins, live across the street from me, right along Johnson Creek.

James does a lot for the neighborhood. He’s the guy who spent his own money getting our street paved. He’s the guy who put up a basketball hoop for the kids. And he’s also the guy who will let you know when your dog poops on his lawn.

“I like my place to look nice. I like my neighbors’ places to look nice,” he says.

When the Tompkinses bought their house, the yard was full of dirt piles and broken glass. They planted a lawn, fruit trees and a vegetable patch — kale, beans, shiny white onions. But this summer, they’re avoiding the backyard.

“We can’t even put up the hammocks, because you lay in the hammock and all you hear is the fighting and arguing of the homeless people back here,” Jay says.

His property ends at the south bank of Johnson Creek. The homeless camp starts on the north bank maybe 20 feet away. It looks like a village.

A view of the camps from James Tompkins' back yard.

A view of the camps from James Tompkins' back yard.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

“There’s two tents right here. There’s one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight …,” James says.

As James counts, a man tosses a bucket on a rope into the creek and pulls it back out filled with water. A mattress floats nearby. Someone’s set two pairs of white socks out to dry.

“… 13, 14, 15, 16 tents that I can count just standing right here,” he concludes. 

The campers have hung an American flag and bags of fruit from a fir tree.

“There’s shacks that are actually built back here. Wooden shacks. This guy has a wood stove with a chimney coming out of the center of the roof,” James says. 

There have always been a couple tents on the property across the creek, which belongs to the Bureau of Environmental Services, but nothing like this.

“It used to be that I could make a phone call, and within a short amount of time, they would be out of here,” James says.

Now, no one calls him back.

James is afraid of the people across the creek. He’s started having anxiety attacks.

“Every night, I sleep maybe three hours a night,” he says. He’s shaken awake by the sound of people shouting, screaming sometimes. He worries for his family, and he can’t fall back asleep.

A few months ago, someone jumped the fence and dropped a knife in James Tompkins' yard.

A few months ago, someone jumped the fence and dropped a knife in James Tompkins' yard.

Amelia Templeton/OPB

The campers mostly avoid James’ property. But people have occasionally jumped the fence into his yard, sometimes running from the police. One dropped a knife. James pulls it out to show me, and gets a tape measure.

“Six-inch blade. That’s going to seriously do some damage to somebody,” he says.

As a reporter, I’ve spent time in homeless camps. I’ve been treated kindly by homeless people. And I often think that people like James, who fear the people living on the street, are just afraid of what they don’t know.

But in James’ case, at least, it turns out I’m dead wrong.

“The reason I get so worked up and scared is because I know what these people are thinking,” he says. “I’ve been there.”

As in, he’s been homeless.

“I was about 13, 12 when I went to my first group home. I was a bad boy, and I was on the streets.”

James was using cocaine and heroin. Until one morning, he woke up and decided he was tired of the drugs and afraid of going to jail. He got it together. He became a carpenter.

James believes a lot of the people camping across the creek are addicted too. And he remembers how blank he used to feel, how willing he was to do crazy things.

“You’d almost do anything to chase after that thrill, that high,” James says.

James’s story — getting off the street, buying a house, having a homeless camp move in next door decades later — may be unusual. But I think a lot of people in the neighborhood can relate to his frustration.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has announced that Aug. 1, police will clear the Springwater trail of campers, and encourage them to move into new city shelters.

But that’s probably too little too late for James. He and Jay want to sell their house, to move someplace farther out. Someplace that’s quiet. 

Read reporter Amelia Templeton’s second part in this series and meet some of the residents of a homeless camp along the Springwater Corridor Trail

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