Lents neighbors wrestle with homelessness issues

See what’s been learned about the proposed outdoor Reedway Street camp. The chant sounded like ‘No Tents in Lents’

With the impending “sweep” of homeless along the Springwater Corridor Trail, Lents area residents say they’re concerned about a problem they say is exploding in their outer East Portland neighborhood.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

When the Lents Neighborhood Association (LNA) held their monthly meeting at the Lents Activity Center on the evening of August 23, more than 100 people turned out to hear about Springwater Corridor Trail “clean-out” scheduled for September 1.

The other issue was regarding a proposed outdoor encampment, rumored to be bound for property owned by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, on the west end of the Beggars Tick Wildlife Refuge, where SE Reedway Street dead-ends into a field at SE 104th Avenue.

Moderating the meeting is LNA Chair Judy Low.

Many of the neighbors at the meeting expressed annoyance, anger, and sometimes even rage that the City of Portland – either by decree or neglect – may be saddling Lents with hundreds of homeless in the area.

Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Kelli Sheffer listens as Captain Robert King explains the role of the Bureau in dealing with the homeless.

Starting off the meeting, Portland Police Bureau East Precinct Commander Kelli Sheffer and Captain Robert King began telling how the police are dealing with the burgeoning number of homeless people in the area.

“I’m here this evening to show you how important your community, and its concerns, are to me,” said Commander Sheffer.

Sheffer and King affirmed that the City of Portland and Multnomah County agencies will be moving homeless campers out of the Springwater Corridor Trail starting on September 1.

“Within the City of Portland, the Springwater Trail is about 14 miles long,” King explained. “It will be done in increments,” he added.

The police representatives also explained that there are District Officers assigned to Lents who do regular street patrols, and also cruise the Springwater Trail on bicycle.

They also pointed out that being homeless, in and of itself, is not a crime. But, King admitted, there are some homeless people who do criminal acts. Neighbors are urged to call 9-1-1 if they see a crime in progress; and call the non-emergency number [503-823-3333] about livability and trespassing issues.

Not all of the homeless are criminals, says this woman who claims to be living in a motorhome.

Housed neighbors weren’t the only people at the meeting.

A woman stood up and told the group that she’s been clean and sober for some time, and lives in a motorhome with her son.

“Because of the age of the motorhome, we can’t stay in a ‘park’, and have to move from place,” the woman said. “Were looking for somewhere we can be safe.”

She continued, “It seems as if we’re all seen as drug users or criminals. [All homeless are] lumped in with the ‘bad apples’ out there. I’m here to tell you, as a person in the houseless community, we are not all bad apples.

“What I’m asking for is for managed camps,” she concluded. “The Springwater Trail is not a managed camp.”

This resident of SE Lambert Street says more “bad apples” have moved in, infiltrating the original homeless campers.

“When homeless folks started moving in, there were just a few of them, and the area was relatively safe,” said a Lents neighbor.

“Now, near my house, they number 75 to 100; now there are problems all the time. It’s true, there are good people camping here, but there are a lot of bad apples that have infiltrated the Springwater Corridor,” he added.

City of Portland, Mayor Charlie Hales Office Livability Project Manager Chad Stover explains the Springwater Corridor Trail “Clean-out” project coming the first of September.

From Mayor Charlie Hales’ office, Livability Project Manager Chad Stover started the next segment of the discussion, telling how he started working in the office of former Mayor Sam Adams, and has worked with Hales throughout his term, and has now been assigned to address livability issues.

“The plan is that we’re going to be cleaning all of the Springwater Trail that’s in the City of Portland’s boundary – from SE 4th Avenue and Ivon Street, all the way east to the Gresham city line.

“To answer a question asked about the land on either side of the trail, we’re working with Portland Parks & Recreation, the Bureau that owns most of the land along the trail,” Stover continued. “Specifically, in some of the areas we’ll be cleaning out [on both sides] along the 14 miles, but in other areas, [the area to be cleaned out extends] just a matter of feet on either side of the trail.”

This is one of about 1,000 signs that have been posted, warning of the imminent illegal camping area clean-out.

However, they’ve done more than post signs this time, Stover assured. “We started doing outreach back on July 18, working with a large group of social service providers, talking to both people who live near the trail, and outside of the trail.”

Stover pooh-poohed the notion that as many as 1,000 people are living near the trail. “The outreach workers did a headcount, and there’s not 1,000 people. Some people say 500 of them, but think it’s more like 200 to 300 people.”

Many of the attendees took raucous exception to his comment.

More than just posting clean-out notices, the outreach workers have been sent in to help homeless find housing, Chad Stover says.

“Outreach workers … have gone out to make intentional interaction with the homeless people that are along the trail, trying their best to find the most vulnerable people that are there, making an effort in the most humane and compassionate way to get them someplace safe,” Stover explained.

The City official said that 14 miles of trail won’t be swept clean in a day. “It will be done incrementally, and we’re working that out right now, trying to do that in a strategic way with the limited resources that we have.”

It won’t be city worker doing the displacement and trash clean-up Stover said. “Contractors who go out and do these kind of cleanups … will be in compliance with the Anderson Agreement and the Georgia Law Center to make sure that we’re doing this in a safe, humane, and compassionate way.”

An attendee decried how Stover referred to the process of “cleaning out” the Springwater Trail. “I’m talking about your language about cleaning people out – cleaning it out; using that kind of language is what you use for trash.”

Stover apologized, responding, “I’ll try to articulate it better. We’re trying to get people located in shelters with the beds we have available. In terms of personal belongings, we’re trying to get them to a storage unit, and clean out the remaining trash.”

Audience members holding up their hands were allowed to comment.

“What I see is a problem is been caused by city government. The police have their hands tied, according to patrol officers that have come to talk to the neighborhood association.”

“The police department needs to do community policing; driving by in an SUV doesn’t work, you have to be out of it and working with people.”

“I’ve also been told they greater than 50% of men on the trail have no homes – parole officers [say] because they’ve been convicted of sex crimes. This is one big piece that nobody’s talking about.”

“When will we start being treated as people – people who live in Eastmoreland, Laurelhurst, or the West Hills?”

“The complicated issue here is about housing,” Stover said. “This is not a simple question or topic; I don’t have a one-line answer for you, so you’ll have to let me explain.

“We declared this to be an emergency in the City of Portland, what makes that useful for us is that we can be flexible with the city’s zoning code.

“We superimposed a map of Portland overlay with the different slivers of land out there we could put in a shelter site and there are very few areas where it will be possible. It means there are no place for people to go. This stops everything.”

Several members of the audience broke in, saying that Stover was dodging their question of “Why Lents?”

“I’m still answering; it’s my turn,” Stover went on.

Chad Stover continues to explain the City’s process of helping the homeless.

“All of this leads to a place like the Springwater Corridor Trail, or Laurelhurst Park. We have a system called One Point of Contact for people who need help and try to prioritize. It’s not good, but it is better what we had before – which was no system at all.

“It’s slow, but is out there and we try to put some services to it to get this cleaned up,” Stover said.

“We spent four decades of moving people around and that doesn’t change anything if we don’t have a shelter for them to go to,” Stover explained. “The hardest part about this is opening up the shelters. So we have to have all of these things working in synchronicity. Opening up shelters; intentional outreach by our service providers to know how to react with homeless camps, and [how to] identify people to get social service they say need.”

This meeting attendee says she’s hearing “rhetoric, not an answer.

“You’ve just given us rhetoric not an answer,” a frustrated attendee proclaimed.

“Everyone here is looking for the answer to how Mayor Charlie Hales plans to change people’s minds about this neighborhood, and stop dumping many of the problems that the city has right here.

“When certain areas threaten the Mayor with a lawsuit, the police come and move [the homeless] out,” the neighbor said. “But, they’ve moved into our neighborhood and the wildlife refuges like at Beggars Tick and the like.”

“People shouldn’t have to live in these conditions,” this neighbor says.

Another neighbor asked to be heard. “Your [count of campers] is all and well, but don’t you think they scamper when you come there? I don’t have numbers; I just see them every day and every night.”

He continued, “I’ve had crime in my backyard; including a murder in my backyard. There are children living out there; I have pictures of them; I see them. Nobody should have to, or be allowed to, live in these conditions.

“They need to be removed; the question is, and I don’t have the answer, is, to where? Chad is here to placate you, get you to ‘swallow the pill’ of the Reedway campsite.”

His comments were met with a loud round of applause.

LNA Chair Judy Low asks to stay on agenda, and learn more about the potential “Reedway” camp site.

Let’s talk about Reedway
“Right now there are contaminated soil piles at Reedway,” Stover said.

“BES went out and measured the soil and found out that is contaminated which is no good for you, no good for me. We’ve asked the BES to remove those dirt piles; they have to go. They’re in the process of that action.

“That’s all that is happening at Reedway,” Stover emphatically stated.

He said that, for longer than a year, they’ve been looking for locations to site outdoor shelter communities. “We’re not just interested in Reedway, but in any number of places.”

Before an outdoor shelter site is set up, Stover said there are steps that must be taken, in chronological order to make them successful.

“We don’t just put people there and call it a sheltered community,” Stover elucidated. This includes:

  1. Bringing in a non-profit social service agency to run it,
  2. Make sure it has the inventory of houses (beds),
  3. Have a plan for running a camp or shelter.

 

“The only plan for Reedway is to remove the soil piles,” restated Stover.

He pointed to a “pilot program” in the Overlook neighborhood called “Hazelnut Grove”.

“We’re looking for land, possibly city owned, where it makes sense, provided that we have the infrastructure in place which means we have the social service provider there, we have the inventory housing and properly managed, that is a better alternative than, say what we have on the Springwater Trail, where there is no organization,” Stover said.

“Yes we are interested [at putting a camp at Reedway], but we’re not just interested in that site alone. This is one option that we could do, if we have the infrastructure in place  … to get homeless people housed, right now.”

Stover concluded, saying, “Really what we’re here is to hear what your thoughts are about this concept. We have as many questions for you is we have for ourselves.”

His dialogue request was met with the crowd chanting, “No Tents in Lents”.

A theme of City government, and the Lents Neighborhood, Public Safety Chair Robert Schultz says, is “not consulted”.

“The fact is, neighbors who live around the Reedway property have not been consulted,” pointed out LNA Public Safety Chair Robert Schultz.

“This is a common theme: ‘not consulted’,” Schultz continued. “Some of our LNA Board Members have been asked to join in and be part of the process.

“Homeless settling in the Springwater is the product of their population being moved around, until they’ve come here to live – in an area never designed for human occupation,” Schultz said.

“The other thing our community overwhelmingly says is that we don’t want tent shelters in our community,” added Schultz. “This is not a sanitary way to live; many of us have seen jugs of urine on the trail and feces – we don’t want this in our community”

We’re not insensitive to the plight of homelessness, as long as I’ve been here in this community, but, although you say you’ve been working on this for a year, we’re kept out of the loop,” Schultz added. “I would like to see more conversations, letting us dictate what our neighborhoods get a look like. I did move into this area to move with homeless problems as Portland takes in the country’s homeless.”

Schultz concluded, “This doesn’t mean that we should be mean to the homeless, but if the Mayor wants to initiate policies that attract the homeless here, the Mayor needs to come up with a substantial answer to the problem this been magnified in our community.”

Although the audience started thinning out, several stayed until about 10:00 p.m., restating their disillusionment, disenchantment and cynicism with how governmental bodies are have been, and are perceived to be dealing with the homeless community.

Epilog
After the meeting, LNA Chair Judy Low told East Portland News, a theme of the comments were that efforts should be put forth to “give Lents a respite” from what many neighbors see as a proliferation of homeless living in, and moving to Lents.

“Part of the answer is that there has to be a place for those who no longer wish to live outdoors, to have a place to live,” Low said. “Some [homeless] don’t want to be continuously uprooted, and want to stay in one place. It’s turned into something like the carnival game of Whack-a-Mole, because there is no place to put them.”

The meeting did meet one of its primary goals, Low said, giving both neighbors and homeless the opportunity to vent frustrations. However, our community has become even more divided on the issue, mostly – many of them say – because they believe the City isn’t being straight with them.”

© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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