This week's dismantling of a camp by Laurelhurst Park makes some people wonder what happens next for both the neighborhood and the campers.
The highly-publicized dismantling of a large homeless camp at Laurelhurst Park in southeast Portland this week shined a spotlight on the increasing challenges around homelessness in Portland.
The so-called "sweeping" of camps in Portland has been greatly curtailed during the pandemic due to fears of increased transmission of COVID-19, allowing many camps to grow into sprawling villages of tents and garbage. City efforts to mitigate the situation, including the placement of hygiene stations, trash cans, and port-a-potties, have largely been ineffective. This has lead to increased calls to police, and widespread complaints among neighbors and people who no longer feel safe using recreational areas like parks and trails where homeless individuals have been camping.
Homelessness in Portland is both a humanitarian and public health crisis. And homelessness in the region only continues to get worse the longer the pandemic drags on, making the camping problem even more untenable.
So what will become of the campers who were evicted from Laurelhurst Park this week? Will Laurelhurst Park be free of campers now? The answer is not so simple.
What happens before the sweeps?
Portland and Multnomah County's "Joint Office of Homeless Services" funds homeless services providers to staff multiple Street Outreach Teams whose focus is on street campers and people living in cars or RVs. Outreach teams fan out across the county looking for campsites and offering supplies and services. Outreach teams may include homeless services workers, medical volunteers, peer support specialists, and mental health workers, depending on the team.
Outreach workers typically provide individuals who are homeless with supplies like tarps. garbage bags, and sleeping bags; first-aid and hygiene supplies; clothing like coats, hats, and socks; water, snacks, and sack lunches. Outreach teams also connect people with services. They share information about shelters and drop-in centers, upcoming medical clinics or vaccine sites, and where to access mental health services.
When "sweeps" are announced, Outreach teams make sure campers understand what's required, offer them shelter beds as available, provide transportation assistance like bus passes and gas for vehicles, and help campers plan for where they'll go next. These teams don't participate in the sweeps, they help people on the streets understand their options and attempt to engage individuals in additional services.
What options do campers have now?
Prior to the sweeps at Laurelhurst Park, the Joint Office of Homeless Services worked with providers to reserve shelter beds and spots at sanctioned campsites for those who were camping in the area. Many campers believe those aren't good options.
While well-intentioned, shelters are not a restful environment. People are up and down all night going to the bathroom, people are snoring or coughing or talking in their sleep, and staff are walking around monitoring activities.
Guests typically stay on cots or bunk beds, or sometimes mats on the floor. There is little or no secure storage for belongings, and large amounts of "stuff" are not allowed. While most shelters now allow pets, some require pets to be in crates, taking away the safety of a companion animal.
And some individuals struggle with shelter requirements around smoking, drinking, or using drugs.
While sanctioned camps or homeless "tiny house" style villages can be a workable solution for some, there is also a lot of fear about going into a new environment. Campers often create "street families" and join together to share resources and protection. This sense of community is lost when campers move to other locations.
The sanctioned camps and homeless villages also come with rules and requirements that may deter some campers from wanting to access them.
The reality is that most of the Laurelhurst campers will move to other nearby locations, and some will likely return to the park once the sweep has passed and city workers turn their attention to another location.
Homeless advocates are clear: as long as Portland continues to grapple with a shortage of affordable housing, an ineffective mental health system, and underfunding of services compared to the needs, people living in tents and vehicles will continue to experience a never-ending cycle of sweeps and homelessness.
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