Each time the city of Portland decides to clear out a homeless encampment, work crews are dispatched to clean up the debris left behind — and, inevitably, disperse the people who were living there.

The work is two-part: Crews must dispose of the thousands of needles, shopping carts, trash and gallons of human waste on the site. And they must convince people who have not heeded warnings to leave — required by law to be posted at the campsite at least two days prior — to find somewhere else to spend the night. 

Since 2014, the city has tapped Pacific Patrol Services, a local security company, to do the bulk of these cleanups. But the city allowed its $650,000 annual contract with the firm to expire last month.

Portland City Council is now poised to offer a far bigger $4.5 million annual contract to Rapid Response Bio Clean, a hazardous waste removal company the city has worked with since 2016 with purported expertise in cleaning up after everything from blood spills to superbugs. City staff says the high figure stems from high demand: The number of illegal encampments has swelled and the state now relies on Portland to disperse the campsites scattered along the city’s interstates. 

The council was expected to approve the contract Wednesday. But the agenda item was pulled at the last minute after outcry from homeless advocates, who say hazmat workers are ill-suited to be on the frontline with some of the city’s most in-need and isolated populations.

“Rapid Response is trained to clean up after a traumatic event. These are living people, right, that they’re dealing with,” said Street Roots executive director Kaia Sand, who met with Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty Tuesday to ask her to postpone a vote on the contract. “They’re not trained for that.”

But the city says it’s working on it. Lucas Hillier, who runs the city program that oversees campsite cleanups — officially called the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program — told commissioners at a council meeting this spring that he wanted to use this contract to require specialized training for the work crews. 

The city went on to solicit proposals from contractors trained in “nonviolent conflict resolution,” “assertive engagement” and “trauma informed communication.” According to the proposal, work crews would be required to carry Naloxone, a drug that can halt opioid overdoses. They must be trained in basic first aid and CPR. And when the temperature drops dangerously low, they must conduct welfare checks and distribute hand warmers. 

The proposal also requires work crews to be “polite, diplomatic and professional at all times, and treat all persons with dignity and respect.”

But homeless advocates say no matter the updated language, the end result of the contract will be the same: Homeless individuals will continue to be uprooted and traumatized, left with nowhere to turn.

On Tuesday, Sand said she walked over to City Hall to voice her concern alongside a Street Roots’ vendor, who, just that morning, had lost his personal belongings to a cleanup.

“He just talked about feeling exhausted because it’s not like there was anywhere for him to go. He just basically had to make do with more loss and then re-pitch his tent and start over again. And I just hear that again and again,” she said. “I just hear people that are very, very tired.”

Sand is calling on the city to halt the contract’s approval for half a year, while activists try to come up with a “constructive alternative” for the $4.5 million. As of now, the council is expected to vote on the agreement in January.

Danielle Klock, the executive director of nonprofit Sisters of the Road, also pushed Hardesty to delay the contract – and said she believed the money would be better spent in a way that would allow the homeless camps to run themselves.

“The contract, for instance, could go to a small grassroots organization to train and hire residents of these camps to facilitate that governance — to monitor bathrooms, showers and trash and provide security,” she said. “Instead of hiring these companies that are not trauma-informed and continue to, ultimately, what amounts to, terrorize people.” 

Reached by phone Tuesday, Lance Hamel, the owner of Rapid Response, seemed unsurprised to find his business in the crosshairs of larger debates over homeless sweeping. After three years conducting campsite clean-ups in Gresham, Vancouver and Portland, he said he’s learned the public doesn’t always look favorably on this line of work.

“We can’t make anybody happy. We’re either being too nice or we’re being too mean. There’s no middle ground. All we’re trying to do is warn campers, we’re trying to clean and hope that they move,” he said. “We just have this very simple function.”