Every few weeks, a familiar pattern plays out among the homeless camps lining Portland’s Laurelhurst Park.
The city sweeps. The campers move.
Within a few days, they return. The city sweeps again.
For over a year, tents, cars, and shopping carts brimming with trash have lined the streets next to one of the city’s most prized parks. The camp, which stretches from Southeast Oak Street to neighboring 37th Avenue, has remained in the headlines with housed residents decrying it as a public health nightmare and unhoused campers saying there’s nowhere else for them to live.
After over a year of sweeps and returns, fed-up Laurelhurst residents are now trying to take matters into their own hands. An unidentified group of neighborhood residents has hired one of the city’s most powerful attorneys to prod the city with an unexpected legal argument: Do it for the trees.
On Aug. 22, Davis Wright Tremaine lawyer John DiLorenzo, who filed a class action lawsuit earlier this month to get Portland officials to clear city sidewalks of homeless camps, wrote city leaders on behalf of “concerned neighbors of Laurelhurst Park and Laurelhurst Park Annex” hinting at possible future litigation.
In the letter, which OPB obtained through a public records request, DiLorenzo argued the campers at Laurelhurst need to be moved because the status quo is too dangerous. The campers, he contends, are damaging the trees along the park’s outer edge— and those trees could injure the campers.
“The branches and limbs of the trees are at risk of falling and pose a significant threat of severe bodily harm or death to anyone in their target zone,” DiLorenzo wrote city attorney Robert Taylor and city forester Jenn Cairo. “Any people living or sleeping in the tent encampments are at an elevated risk of death or injury much greater than that of an ordinary pedestrian.
“My clients urge you to permanently clear the tent encampments lining SE Oak Street and send licensed arborists to care for and remediate the city-owned trees,” DiLorenzo continued. “My clients do not want to see a senseless and tragic death or injury caused by the City’s inaction.”
Who exactly DiLorenzo’s concerned clients are remains a mystery. DiLorenzo declined to identify them, noting they had not given him permission to do so. A member of the Laurelhurst Neighborhood Association, which has grown increasingly aggrieved over the camps, said the group knew nothing about the letter.
DiLorenzo said the goal of his client, whoever they may be, is to alert city leaders that they are “biting off on a lot of liability” by continuing to allow the Laurelhurst camp. A future lawyer, he said, could refer back to this warning should a branch indeed injure one of the campers.
“If it falls, it is disastrous,” he said of the trees. “And I would not blame the families of the people who were killed to sue the city for negligence.’
Bolstering the argument was a 19-page report Davis Wright Tremaine commissioned from Pacific Consulting Arborists to look at the impact homeless camps were having on the park’s trees. The report, which analyzed the health of 12 elm trees and two hackberries on Southeast Oak Street, stated the trees needed to be better maintained.
“These trees are large, old, have defects that have not been mitigated, and are not regularly maintained, which increases the likelihood of tree parts failing and striking a person,” hired arborist Kyle Offerdahl wrote in the report, which includes several pictures of purportedly dead or broken tree limbs hanging over encampments. “As these trees age, experience extreme weather, and become increasingly prone to diseases such as Dutch elm disease, the likelihood of a tree part failing increases.”
The safest path forward, DiLorenzo reasoned based on the arborist report, is for campers to leave.
Campers say they’re not moving
People living on the tree-lined stretch of Southeast Oak Street said Monday they had no intention of permanently relocating.
Buster Sims, who said he’d been at the site living out of his car for a little over a month, noted he felt safer being near nature and removed from people’s doorsteps. Plus, there was safety in numbers. When city crews swept the camp, he said, he and some of the other campers would usually hang out a few blocks away until the effort wrapped up, and then return.
The same day DiLorenzo sent the letter and report to the city, the Portland Parks Bureau dispatched one of its own arborists to Laurelhurst. The arborist “inspected the area visually, from a distance” and found one tree that should be removed soon, according to a written statement from bureau spokesperson Mark Ross.
“[The city arborist report] did not identify tree emergencies on the side of SE Oak Street where people are living outside,” wrote Ross. “City arborists wish to do a more comprehensive inspection on those trees and have scheduled one pending the absence of people living below them. Portland Parks & Recreation staff are ready to inspect the trees when the area is safe for that work.”
Ross also noted the city will be warning campers next week they’re about to be removed again.
While many Portlanders lament that their complaints to City Hall go ignored, DiLorenzo has proven uniquely skilled at getting the ear of Portland leaders. He famously walked away with a $10 million settlement from the city in 2017 for alleged improper spending by the city’s utility bureaus.
OPB reported last December that DiLorenzo had hired a private security company to investigate a homeless camp near a building he owned downtown. The private security company then presented the resulting report, which detailed suspected drug dealing and prostitution at the street corner, to the city’s police chief, deputy chief, the mayor’s chief of staff and the city attorney among other higher-ups. Within a week, the camp was swept.
And two weeks ago, DiLorenzo filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Portlanders with disabilities to get the city to remove all homeless camps in Portland and move people into shelters. The lawsuit alleges the city is violating the Americans with Disability Act by failing to dismantle tents that block sidewalks.
DiLorenzo said the ADA lawsuit and the Laurelhurst letter were two prongs of the same effort: He’s trying to convince city leaders to remove homeless camps citywide and build new emergency shelters to move people into.
“Look, please don’t think that all I want to do is sweep the camps so that the city looks nice. That’s not my goal,” he said. “The adversaries are not the homeless people. They are the politicians who have gotten us here … and now don’t seem to have the resolve to do much about it. So I am trying to nudge them along.”