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Why we shouldn’t use the 's' word

Blog Post
A City's Public Information Officer corrects false assumptions about the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program. Hear how the City provides trash collection, outreach, assistance, property storage and - as a last resort - campsite removals with advance, legal notice.
Published

There’s a common misconception in our community – and before I go any further, I’m asking that you please read this article in its entirety. My goal here is to educate our community about the role of the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program – and it’s important to understand this. Not for those of us who work for the City, and not just for you – but for those sleeping in our public spaces. It’s common practice these days to publish vitriolic comments upon reading a headline or a sentence – this one requires more time. By learning about the complexities of houselessness in Portland, we can all work together to address this crisis.  

The City of Portland does not perform sweeps.

The word “sweep” depicts a violent and militaristic action. Sweeps are performed without advance notice and typically result in arrests or citations. Sweeps are a tactic used to surprise and eradicate communities without thought towards their circumstances or wellbeing. The City of Portland does not do this. Using this word to describe our program grossly mischaracterizes our work and completely negates the tireless work of dedicated social workers, outreach providers and community health outreach personnel. It’s wrong and outright offensive.

This is the work we perform.

The City of Portland spends $1.25 million each year to employ individuals who have experienced homelessness to pick up garbage and talk to people at encampments. They hand out garbage bags, offer community resources and remind people about our health and safety guidelines. Clean Start employees then perform a health and safety risk assessment to inform our decision as to whether or not the encampment should be removed. This is the first step of a long process.

In 2019 the City and Multnomah County created a Navigation Team to perform more extensive outreach and referral to our community members experiencing homelessness. The Navigation Team’s performance measures are available online, but to date they have gotten 403 people into shelters and helped 247 individuals obtain state-issued identification cards.

The City of Portland’s goal is for those experiencing homelessness to find permanent housing. If that isn’t possible, our goal is to identify shelter options. If shelter isn’t an appropriate option, then our goal is for campers to clean and maintain their campsites so they don’t pose a health and safety risk to the community. As a last resort, after trash is collected, outreach is performed, referrals are made, campers are asked to relocate, staff offer to help pack up belongings – then yes, we will remove the campsite and perform a deep clean of the site.

We are legally required to post written notification of our intent to remove a campsite (ORS 203.079). When a campsite is posted the City has between 48 hours and 10 days to return and remove the site. If 10 days pass and we were unable to remove a campsite, we will not remove it. It will be reposted. Although we continuously hear that the Impact Reduction Program doesn’t post notices and doesn’t provide warning, we have documented proof that this is not the case. Our contractors take pictures of all posted notices. These efforts are tracked. The only time an encampment is removed without notice is when law enforcement issues an abatement due to unlawful/criminal activity and exceptional emergencies that endanger human life or safety.  

Many people think we throw away everything we collect. We do not. We throw away trash and biohazards. We collect all personal property and store it in an off site storage facility for 30 days. The City pays $80,000 year for a 5,500 square foot storage facility. Three full-time contract employees work at the facility six days a week in hopes that people will come and collect their belongings.

It would certainly be easier and more efficient if we removed camps without notice. Throwing away everything we collect would save us over a million dollars a year and alleviate hundreds of hours of sorting, bagging and labeling belongings. But this is not the kind of work that we perform.

Our program was designed to avoid campsite removals. The whole point of our program’s existence is to reduce the impact of homelessness, and we do that by first removing trash that results from people living outdoors in public spaces and then providing resources and referrals.

Once more, campsite removals are a last resort.

Trust us, we are well aware that this program is and will always be controversial. We will never please everyone. For every person who makes posters saying that the City of Portland is killing homeless people with their sweeps, we receive five or more calls from infuriated residents who demand that we remove an encampment in their neighborhood – immediately.

There is no perfect answer. We absolutely believe that leaving garbage in public places is not the answer. Data show us that leaving camps untouched results in more time, effort and costs later on. Since the pandemic began the amount of trash in our city has increased exponentially. We have to do something, and this is the best solution we have found to an untenable problem. Until our homelessness crisis is solved, we will continue to do this work. And we will continue to infuriate people on both sides of this debate. We understand this. However, we think it would be more effective if everyone was knowledgeable about the nuances and complexity of issues related to camping in public spaces.  

This past year has taught us so much. One of those things, I hope, is that words matter. So I will say it again, the City of Portland does not perform sweeps.

We get a lot of emails asking about the status of sweeps – and each and every time we receive these, we cringe. So, from here on out if you send me an email asking about a sweep, here’s what I will tell you: The City of Portland doesn’t perform sweeps. It’s time for us to move past divisiveness and reaction – and move towards a healthier, safer and more respectful solution for our entire community. Please join me in this effort.   

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Office of Management and Finance Media Contact