If you’ve driven Naito Parkway recently, you might have noticed that the effort to end homelessness hasn’t quite worked out.
Portland leaders have devoted countless time and much money to get people off the streets — or, if you’re the more cynical sort, to answer demands from business owners that they push the homeless out of sight.
Yet for months, police have allowed a small sleeping-bag city of about 20 people to prosper along the southbound lanes of Naito Parkway, despite the fact that such camping remains illegal. It’s a remarkably clean and uniquely public squatter village that might as well be named, “Camp Legal Limbo.”
Homeless men and women have long slept on the sidewalk beneath the western end of the Hawthorne Bridge. In the past, the cops roused the squatters every morning.
That was back when city leaders pushed for full enforcement of Portland’s ban on camping in public spaces. Not anymore.
“They leave us alone, because we police ourselves,” says a tall, lanky man who goes by the street name Jave. “As long as we’re not doing drugs or fighting, they’ve got better things to do.”
That’s part of the reason this campsite has been allowed to continue. Legal confusion also has something to do with it.
In late 2008, the nonprofit Oregon Law Center filed a class-action federal lawsuit challenging the camping ban. Its claim: As long as there isn’t enough temporary housing for everyone, such laws essentially outlaw homelessness.
City lawyers don’t necessarily agree; police note that many campers sleep outside even when shelters have vacancies. But City Council members, who receive regular earfuls from business owners about the damage homelessness does to downtown’s appeal, worry about what happens if they lose. They do not want a federal judge deciding what’s allowed on Portland streets.
Instead, lawyers for the city and the Oregon Law Center are working on a compromise that would give both sides a little something. Advocates for the homeless can claim a big victory if the city lifts its ban on sleeping outside, a law rarely enforced but often used to nudge people to less conspicuous spots.
City leaders, wisely, hope to end the long, expensive legal battle over how they handle vagrancy once and for all. They’d like a judge to endorse certain common-sense restrictions such as a cap on the number of people at any spot, or time limits forcing campers out during business hours.
That would free them up to stop worrying quite so much about what City Commissioner Nick Fish smartly calls “the emergency room” side of the homelessness fight — where a particular person sleeps on a particular night — and more on the broader, “preventative medicine” question of how you keep people from becoming homeless in the first place.
The police would love clarity and legal authority. These days, they keep an eye on popular camping sites but intervene only when they spot drug use or other crimes.
“We monitor, but don’t necessarily enforce,” Capt. Mark Kruger said.
Officers let the Hawthorne campsite continue because residents kick out people who openly use drugs or turn disorderly, sweep up their cigarette butts and keep a decent chunk of sidewalk clear.
Most prefer the sidewalk to shelters because they don’t want to be separated from their traveling companions or have no place to board their pets. Jave said he’s on the street because he has a criminal record that makes finding permanent housing or a job especially tough.
“Everybody here just wants to be left alone,” he said. “The police could come down here any minute and find a reason to kick us out. We know that. The fact that they let us stay must mean we’re doing something right.”