The city of Portland has decided to cut down on the number of homeless campsites it dismantles each week, citing fears that it could worsen an outbreak of COVID-19 among the region’s already vulnerable homeless population. 

City officials said they’re weighing the public health risks posed by continuing to clear out these campsites, which could scatter people who are potentially infected with COVID-19 throughout the city, with those posed by letting high-risk campsites go untouched by work crews. 

A homeless encampment in North Portland.

A homeless encampment in North Portland.

Jonathan Levinson

On Friday, the city’s Office of Management and Finance, in charge of cleaning and clearing out people from Portland’s campsites, finalized a new protocol meant to balance the two: Throughout the crisis, the city will stop cleaning and dispersing sites that are usually posted weekly - these are “high impact areas” that require “routine maintenance,” according to a city release.

Examples of these areas include St Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and a strip from Northwest 3rd Avenue to 6th in Old Town, according to Jonny Lewis, a program specialist with the city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program.

However, the program will continue clearing out campsites that pose the greatest public health risk. Those are camps that score above a 65 on a risk assessment test, which takes into account factors such as the amount of trash on site, the presence of human waste and evidence of drug use, according to Lewis. In the past, he said, the office had singled out campsites that scored a 51 and above.

“There’s still a need for us to manage our public spaces,” he said. “But we need to be doing that more responsibly, especially in light of this pandemic.” 

He said it’s difficult to get a clear read yet on how many fewer campsites will be cleaned per week due to the new protocol. 

Denis Theriault, a spokesperson for Multnomah County, said county health officials had encouraged the city to curtail its campsite clean ups. It’s the same logic, he said, that leads to potentially sick people — and their families — quarantining at home. 

“You wouldn’t want family members going into different houses,” he said. “You’d want them to stay together and isolate together.”

Otherwise, the county could see a far worse version of what they experienced last summer, where there was a surge in HIV across the population of people experiencing homelesness, fueled by infectious people staying on the move.

“They would set up a different network with new people and that created a way for an illness to spread,” Theriault said. 

Some activists have called for a full moratorium on sweeps similar to a plan in San Jose. Last Tuesday, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccaro announced the city had temporarily stopped efforts to dismantle camps. Santa Clara County is reportedly considering something similar. 

Kaia Sand, the executive director of homeless advocacy nonprofit Street Roots, has asked for an end to campsite sweeps, saying that they uproot and traumatize people experiencing homelessness and leave them with nowhere to turn. 

Sand said while she’d be in favor of a moratorium, she felt the new protocol was a clear step in the right direction. 

“We’re very pleased that we’re cutting back on sweeps. People that are unhoused already have diminished support in a crisis like this,” she said. “I’m glad we’re making progress.”