Anyone driving through Portland can see the number of homeless encampments has increased over the past year. From Old Town to Delta Park, encampments are not only more plentiful, they are also larger and pose greater health and safety risks to the community.
After more than a year of reduced campsite removals, City Council has approved the Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program’s proposal to increase the number of campsites they remove – beginning Monday, May 24 – using carefully vetted criteria.
The Impact Reduction Program does exactly what its name implies: address the impacts of homelessness today, while partner programs work to expand long-term access to safe, affordable housing. The program offers a suite of services including garbage removal, hygiene access, resource referral and job opportunities – and, as a last resort, removes campsites that pose the highest risk to health and safety.
Since the onset of COVID-19, the City of Portland has closely followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Multnomah County Health Department regarding homeless encampment and campsite removals. Campsite removals ceased altogether from March to July 2020 while health experts determined the safest way to navigate the public health crisis. Then the Impact Reduction Program revised campsite protocols to begin assessing and posting for removal campsites that posed the greatest health and safety risks.
Prior to the pandemic, approximately 50 campsites were removed every week. For the past year the City has removed an average of five campsites per week – and the build-up of trash, needles and other biohazardous waste is evident across Portland.
The number of locations with more than 10 structures has ballooned to nearly 30 today, up from four or five before the pandemic. Prior to March 2020, fewer than five locations scored higher than 70 on the program’s 100-point risk assessment tool. Today, more than 25 locations surpass that threshold.
Although campsite removals were temporarily suspended and then drastically reduced, the Impact Reduction Program never stopped collecting trash – in record amounts. In 2019 the program was collecting an average of 500,000 pounds of trash near campsites each month, which increased to an average of 650,000 pounds in 2020. In March 2021, 818,560 pounds of garbage was collected.
The Impact Reduction team also continued performing outreach and referral services to people living outside throughout the pandemic. Since March 2020, contracted teams with lived experience have engaged with more than 4,000 people throughout Portland. They have made over 650 shelter referrals; provided sack lunches, hand sanitizer, face coverings and survival gear such as blankets and tarps; and shared COVID-19 public health information with people living outside.
The Impact Reduction team also established a hygiene access program that provided 125 bathroom and handwashing units throughout the city. Additionally, a new pilot program offers employment opportunities for people experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
Despite new program offerings, both encampments and trash have grown to alarming numbers. Program staff say that if removals don’t resume soon, returning to pre-pandemic conditions could take two years or more – and reaching an ideal state would take even longer.
The existing protocols prioritize removing encampments that meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Eight or more structures
- Block someone’s ability to use public sidewalks, paths, transit stations, public restrooms or building entrances
- Score 65 or higher on the Impact Reduction Program’s 100-point risk assessment scale
- Credible reports of criminal behavior, other than camping
Mayor Ted Wheeler and City Commissioners Jo Ann Hardesty, Mingus Mapps, Carmen Rubio and Dan Ryan individually reviewed a new proposal to adjust campsite removal policies and gave input to inform the final draft. They issued a joint statement supporting the changes.
Effective May 24, the following criteria will be added:
- Untreated sewage is prevalent, leading to increased risks of exposure to Shigella or Hepatitis A
- Present a public health risk to both housed and unhoused community members due to the presence of biohazardous materials
- Identified by Portland Fire & Rescue as an extreme fire risk or blocking critical fire access
- Verified reports of violence, arrest or criminal activity
- Americans with Disability Act access is blocked, despite attempts by outreach to maintain accessibility requirements
- Impede regular operations at schools