The city of Portland is changing the rules around when contractors can disperse homeless encampments during the pandemic in favor of “a more assertive approach,” according to a memo released by the city Wednesday.

Under the new guidelines, the city can clear out homeless campsites and disperse the people there for following reasons: untreated sewage is prevalent; the fire bureau deems the site “an extreme fire risk”; there are reports of violence or criminal activity; ADA access is consistently blocked; the campsites impedes “regular operations at schools”; or the campsite is considered a public health risk due to the presence of biohazardous materials.

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The city stated it will prioritize the campsites that have eight or more structures or block public sidewalks — a criteria that many sites in the city meet. The city will need to provide a 48-hour notice to people at the site.

During the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended cities avoid dispersing homeless campsites amid concerns it could worsen an outbreak of COVID-19 among the region’s already vulnerable homeless population. The city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction program — known as HUCIRP — reduced the number of homeless campsites it dismantled and prioritized trash collection.

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They believe this response is no longer feasible. The memo, written by program manager Lucas Hillier, gave an example of a campsite on NE 60th and Prescott where he said a growing encampment meant the street could no longer be used by people with accessibility devices.

“Outreach teams were notified to assist with the ADA accessibility issues, but challenges continued as individuals were unable or unwilling to move property to allow for others to access the space,” he wrote. “With current protocols in place, situations like this require a higher level of resources which is unsustainable.”

Some activist groups argued Wednesday that the city was wrong to return to the old policies of forcing people to move on with nowhere to go.

“This plan hurts everyone. A) it will not keep campers cleaner or safer by removing their personal property. B) without a plan for direct housing, constant sweeps will only lead to worsening mental health, addiction and medical issues. C) Sweeping a camp does nothing to solve homelessness or prevent covid,” read a statement from Defense Fund PDX, a local activist group that is part of the Stop the Sweeps Coalition. The group has been working to prevent the city from clearing out a large encampment at Laurelhurst Park.

In a joint-statement from the city council, the city said it believed these were “responsible protocols.” The city also said it is currently taking an inventory of city-owned property that could be used for shelter and camping sites. The council passed a significant zoning code change last month to make it easier to open shelters across the city.

“These new protocols reprioritize public health and safety among houseless Portlanders and aim to improve sanitary conditions until we have additional shelter beds and housing available,” the release stated.

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