Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced a plan Friday to move hundreds of homeless campers off the city’s stretch of the Springwater Corridor Trail.
Hundreds of homeless people have established campsites on the trail this summer, in some cases clearing plants, setting up furniture, and building campfires. In July, homeless campers were responsible for a shooting and a fire on the trail.
Hales said outreach workers will spend two weeks encouraging people to leave the area and helping connect them to local shelters. On Aug. 1, a crew will remove all belongings, garbage and biohazards from the area.
Crime on the trail, environmental damage to the Johnson Creek watershed, livability issues for neighbors, and the sheer size of the encampments prompted the mayor to act.
“This situation frankly just got to the point where it’s toxic,” he said.
But even as he discussed the need to clear the camps on the Springwater, Hales did not back down from his “Safe Sleep” policy, which has directed the Portland Police not to cite people for trespassing when they camp overnight on city property. Neighborhood associations and business groups are suing Portland over the policy.
OPB spoke to Hales about his plan to close the Springwater trail to camping. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Q&A with Charlie Hales
OPB: Where are the people camping on the Springwater Corridor supposed to go?
Charlie Hales: We want people to, one, find shelter if shelter is available, whether it’s in one of the shelters that the city and county have created, or one of the shelter opportunities created by local churches. We’re also going to continue to use the Safe Sleep policy, and say there are places in the city where it’s OK to set up a tent overnight, in small groups, in ways that don’t disturb your neighbors.
OPB: Can you be clearer about the public safety issues that contributed to your decision?
Hales: There’s been an increase in both aggravated assaults and simple assaults in that part of the city over the last few weeks. That’s serious. We’ve also had a couple of fires, which didn’t hurt anyone, fortunately, but those are serious problems that had to be addressed.
OPB: Do you have an estimate of how many people live along the section of the trail in Portland?
Hales: We think it might be as many as 400. It’s a large number of people. It’s a pretty substantial fraction of the total unhoused population in the city. One of the reasons we’ve been reluctant to take this action along the Springwater Corridor, knowing even all the problems that have been there, is we know that means some of these folks will be camping elsewhere in the city — and that will cause problems too.
We’re going to continue to have problems with people camping in our city until we have enough shelter beds. We’re going to open 650 shelter beds this year, and I’m really happy about that, but it’s still not enough.
OPB: Why now?
Hales: The situation reached a tipping point, in terms of real and perceived safety problems, and serious environmental damage. We also are opening some new shelter space this month, and we’re looking for more opportunities for managed, sanctioned campgrounds with services and sanitation and support.
OPB: Some people have speculated it’s because Hood to Coast is coming up in August. You’re going to have 12,000 runners on the trail. Was that at play in this decision?
Hales: Actually, I didn’t know that. So, now I know. Appreciate knowing that Hood to Coast is coming, but I’ve been thinking about the Portlanders who commute on that corridor, and all the volunteers who have spent such heart and time restoring those natural areas. That’s really been my concern.
OPB: There was a sweep of the trail earlier in the summer. Is this going to be any different?
Hales: I hope it’s different in the sense that we are making sure we are practicing good communication. We’re making sure that we have caseworkers talking to folks well in advance of closing an area for camping. These are real people. They’re in very different circumstances, one to another. Some of those folks are this close to getting into housing. We want them to be in touch with their caseworker so we don’t lose track of them and they can get into that apartment unit that’s been found for them.
Other folks are not yet ready to come into shelter or housing, and so we want to try to accommodate their human right to a night’s sleep in a way that causes as few problems for the rest of Portland as we can manage.
It’s an imperfect balance of needs. We have a community of 630,000 people who need to live in a safe and livable place. And we have somewhere north of 1,000 people who need to sleep tonight, for whom we don’t have a shelter bed or a housing unit.
OPB: In terms of closing the area to camping and what that means, neighborhoods want to know what’s going to be done to prevent people from re-creating the same situation.
Hales: There’s going to be an effective effort, I hope, among all the public agencies involved and all the different volunteer groups involved, to work with the house-less community in Portland and say, “These Safe Sleep guidelines haven’t been followed very much, but they’re still a good idea. Find places where you can camp that are as unobtrusive as possible. Stay in small groups, and make use of the series that are provided, whether it’s dumpsters or port-a-potties.”