By Don MacGillivray

Since early spring, the Laurelhurst Park homeless camp along SE Oak St. grew until it was finally removed a week before Thanksgiving. 

A few tents appeared along on the Oak St. parking strip near Caesar E. Chavez Blvd. in March and April. Within two months, it had become a line of tents, by July, the entire three blocks were packed full of tents, structures and vans. 

By August, it extended along SE 37th Ave. to Stark St. and was beginning to grow along the south side of Caesar E. Chavez Blvd. Estimates put the total at well over 100 campers.

In the beginning, it was quiet and there seemed to be a positive sense of community. Minimal services including a Porta-Potty, lunch at midday, a cleaning station and minimal garbage service were provided. 

As the summer wore on, concerns became more numerous and the social climate changed with the arrival of more campers. By late summer, regular visits from the city’s Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program helped out infrequently.

Nearby residents of one of Portland’s most desirable neighborhoods were becoming restless. Many complaints about crime, safety, health, trash, drug use and unmentionable behaviors were expressed. 

Word came down from the Portland Mayor and Commissioner in charge that the US Center for Disease Control dictated that homeless camps were not to be removed because of the COVID-19 virus. 

The nearby residents believed their safety was threatened, not to mention the issues of unsightliness, livability and rumors about violent people around Laurelhurst Park.

The city reversed its policy about sweeping homeless camps if conditions warranted and in October, as the threat a sweep of the camp became known, some local homeless advocates began to demonstrate in support of the camp. 

In early November, over 50 people rallied waving signs protesting that a sweep would be cruel and inhumane. They said the homeless deserved to stay because there was no place for them to go and to move them would be a violation of human dignity. 

They were able to delay the sweep, but not prevent it. The city assured the protesters that they were doing all they could to handle the situation compassionately.

A new shelter had just opened five miles away at the Mt. Scott Community Center at SE 74th Ave. and Harold St., but many campers said they didn’t feel safe in the restricted conditions of the shelters and preferred the freedom camping allowed. Of the 56 people that expressed a willingness to relocate, only 18 moved to the new shelter. What is compassionate to the city may not a positive alternative to the homeless.

Eventually on a rainy day in mid-November, the Rapid Response Bio-Clean-up Team arrived to tear down the campsite. The campers’ modest homes were torn down as they watched and people were crying as their belongings were stuffed into garbage bags. In the process, a scuffle broke out. Anything of value was moved to a city storage facility where it could be retrieved within 30 days. 

Since July, a total of 52 campsite removals had taken place, but last year an equal number of camps were removed every month.

Today SE Oak St. and 37th Ave. are very much as they were a year ago, sans grass and a few minor changes. Only memories remain – some good, some bad. For those that spent their summer camping near Laurelhurst Park, their experience was memorable. 

If you go eight blocks away to the Sunnyside Environmental School, across the street from the Sunnyside Methodist Church, you will find a homeless camp of over 20 tents and 60 campers, many of whom were recently the residents of the Laurelhurst Park homeless camp.

The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and the Joint Office of Homeless Services are working to address the homelessness crisis by improving city regulations concerning emergency, short-term shelter, day storage and hygiene facilities. 

Code changes are being considered to regulate and change siting regulations for tent camping facilities, sleeping pods, temporary housing and shelters in certain zones, as well as the siting of day storage and hygiene facilities serving those unable to afford other housing options.

Homelessness has been common in Portland since the 1980s. Until the causes of homelessness are removed, this challenge will continue no matter how much is done to accommodate it.