News

Oregonian: Portland’s homeless campers face new obstacle: piles of boulders
Author: Diana Kruzman
Posted: July 5, 2019

To read the original story, visit the Oregonian.

Tiffany Hammer used to look out from her home in Goose Hollow and see dozens of tents, open drug use and public defecation along a 10-foot strip of land near a freeway onramp.

Over the past two years, Hammer and her neighbors have contacted the city about 250 times to report the encampment near the intersection of Southwest 14th Avenue and Montgomery Street. Hammer said people from the camp trespassed on her property and broke into her home.

She and her neighbors tried planting rosebushes at the site but saw campers pulling them out or setting up tents around them, she said. State workers would sweep the camp of trash every few months, Hammer said, but the tents always popped back up — until early June.

That’s when the Oregon Department of Transportation covered the area with a layer of boulders, many of them measuring 5 feet across.

The state agency this year has piled up more rocks and spent more money than ever before in a stepped-up effort to deter illegal camping near Portland’s freeways — a move that has drawn support from residents living around the camps but criticism from homeless advocacy groups.

“One or two tents was OK, but a tent city becomes destructive,” Hammer said. “There was violence and yelling and screaming at night.”

So far in 2019, ODOT has placed boulders at five sites at a cost of more than $800,000. That dwarfs its earlier effort — three other sites and about $200,000 since 2013.

“Our thinking was to develop aggressive landscaping efforts that helped keep illegal campers away from unsafe areas,” said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. “This is very much a safety issue. We cannot have illegal campers in these unsafe locations.”

Hamilton pointed to the 2010 death of a homeless man who was killed by a drunken driver while sleeping along Interstate 405 under the Burnside overpass in Northwest Portland — a block away from where ODOT completed a boulder placement this past spring.

The boulders are a form of hostile architecture or defensive design, terms coined to describe impediments used in cities across the country to discourage sleeping on park benches, along roadways and near storefronts.

In Portland, planters have been placed under bridges along Naito Parkway where people might try to set up tents, while San Francisco has removed all the benches from one of its central plazas.

But giant stacks of boulders are a rare tactic for displacing homeless people, said Greg Townley, the director of research for the Homelessness Research & Action Collaborative at Portland State University.

“We can sometimes become immune to these things or consider them the new normal — people may not question that benches have dividers or that there are planters under bridges,” Townley said. “The boulders are something that most community members will see and will find jarring.”

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ODOT’s spending on boulders has increased this year as it has gradually handed off responsibility for clearing illegal campsites on state property within the city of Portland entirely to city agencies. The move was meant to streamline the cleanup process by making one agency responsible for cleanups inside city limits.

The state department has spent $3.7 million cleaning campsites more than 1,700 times over the past two years, according to ODOT documents, while the city has spent nearly $3 million over the same period performing more than 5,000 campsite cleanups.

Under the new system, Portland residents concerned about illegal campsites can file a report online through the city’s One Point of Contact Campsite Reporting System, and workers with the city’s Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program will post notices telling campers to gather their personal belongings before teams come through to remove trash and human waste.

After these sweeps, ODOT can choose whether it wants to place boulders if the campsite is on state property — but that doesn’t always prevent people from coming back.

***

Patrick Abbott, who has been homeless since September, spends his days sleeping among the boulders along 13th Avenue near U.S. 26 in Southwest Portland, where tents stood before ODOT spent $75,259 to cover the area with rocks last year.

He has found a spot in the shade on a raised concrete platform, where the boulders are far enough apart to allow him to spread out a thin blanket.

Abbott, 64, said he enjoys the solitude and didn’t interact with the residents of the encampment much when they were still there, preferring to sleep in a nearby church at night. But he praised the boulder placement and said the camp had been a “disaster zone” filled with garbage before the state intervened.

“They put these to keep people from camping here. It didn’t work for me,” Abbott acknowledged with a laugh.

Hamilton said the boulder program has been ODOT’s most effective strategy to date in eliminating illegal camps on state property, which are either marked “no trespassing” or “no camping” due to their proximity to freeways.

ODOT previously tried other approaches, including putting up fences or planting roses, but now plans to use the boulders more frequently because the procedure works, he said.

But it’s unclear where people go once the boulders arrive.

***

The city’s campsite cleanup program works with city and county social service agencies to try to connect people living in the areas it clears with information about homeless shelters and permanent housing.

But the agencies don’t directly track the outcomes for people removed from camps, leaving that task up to various nonprofits contracted with the city and county to support homeless people.

And often, people living in the makeshift campsites end up relocating just a few blocks away when a sweep comes through, said Kaia Sand, executive director of Street Roots, a newspaper that hires homeless people and advocates for their issues.

“If people are out there, they really don’t have anywhere else to go,” Sand said. “When our government actually pays to make even those spaces inhospitable then we’re just basically shrinking public spaces for very poor people. They’re just going to have to find other places to camp.”

Sand urged ODOT to put more of its money toward establishing safe camping spaces to help people displaced by the boulder projects, as well as the rest of the 4,177 people experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County as of 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available.

But for residents like Hammer, “there’s a fine line between helping people and also being safe,” she said.

She experienced a break-in and an attempted break-in in August 2017 by people she saw return to the camp and reported one man to police for threatening her with a tree branch when she asked him to leave her property, she said.

“We tried to get them humanitarian help or encourage them to accept the helping hand offered,” Hammer said. “But our personal safety and property is now comprised, and it is vital to regain this in our community instead of moving away, because it’s too much to cope with.”

A coalition of social service agencies worked with people living in the camp from April to May this year, connecting the campers to shelters, housing and health services before the state resorted to boulders.

Residents recognize that “the long-term humanitarian crisis demands better proactive solutions,” said Michael Mehaffy, vice president of the Goose Hollow Foothills League.

But they’re also desperate for any kind of action to prevent crime and trash buildup in their neighborhoods.

“It isn't fair to anybody that the situation has gotten so far out of control — obviously not the homeless, but also not the residents either, who are dealing with very serious problems,” said Mehaffy, who works as an urbanism researcher for a science foundation.

“The last thing you want to do is to make public space inaccessible to the public — that’s the destruction of public space — but this ugly solution is what we’ve come to.”