Neighborhood Association and nonprofit make handshake deal with city to demarcate recently vacated homeless encampments

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The Pearl District Neighborhood Association and a nonprofit garbage disposal company have entered into an informal agreement with the city of Portland to put up bark dust, fences and “do not trespass” signs in homeless encampments recently inundated by the city along Interstate 405.

This nonprofit — We Heart Portland — has partnered with neighborhood volunteers from the Pearl District over the past two months to give a facelift and other deterrents to camping six blocks along I-405 in northwest Portland to install.

As Portlanders debate Mayor Ted Wheeler’s executive order banning tent camping along city streets, known as safe routes to school, volunteering in the Pearl District shows how the mayor’s earlier executive order — banning camping along freeways — in the practice works.

In some places, people who have been swept off highway shoulders simply return to their previous campsites. In others, a league of volunteers is coordinating with the city to ensure this doesn’t happen.

Stan Penkin, president of the Neighborhood Association, says volunteers have been flooding the city’s camp grievance portal to speed up the cleanup of camps along the six-block stretch the groups are targeting.

After the city put the camp out for removal, a city worker alerted Penkin and We Heart Portland and volunteers urged campers to take shelter before it was swept and offered to help pick up trash. Of the 40 or so tents swept, Penkin says he estimates the group sent 20 to 25 people into shelters.

Then volunteers scattered bark dust on the camp, surrounding it with makeshift fences and putting up signs telling people not to enter and saying it was a neighborhood beautification project.

An employee at the mayor’s office confirms this ww that the city has worked with the neighborhood association to notify it when the city is clearing a camp, but that no formal written agreement has been reached.

The unofficial partnership of clearing camps and taking extra steps to ensure they don’t come back has been fraught with controversy.

We Heart Portland is an offshoot of We Heart Seattle, a non-profit organization founded by Andrea Suarez in late 2020. Seattle City Council last year rebuffed the organization for its tactics, with several councilors saying its work verged on harassing the homeless. One council member compared it to a burglary.

ww reported on the nonprofit’s arrival in Portland in May.

Suarez is a controversial figure in Seattle. She and Portland chapter president Kevin Dahlgren have appeared on conservative podcasts to talk about what they call the “homeless industrial complex” and to argue that aid groups are supporting the homeless by being too generous with food and avoid camping. This has drawn the ire of Seattle housing advocates.

“We tell the truth and we challenge the status quo, and that hasn’t always gone over well… Work is a virtue,” Suarez said ww in May. “There’s that element of, ‘Somebody’s cleaning and doing something for me, and I feel like that makes more sense than lying over here on the garbage and sticking a needle in my arm.'”

The banks along Interstate 405 are owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation but maintained by the City of Portland under a 2019 agreement. ODOT spokesman David House says any new infrastructure or installations – such as fences and signs – would require ODOT approval. The authorities could not initially say whether the city or the neighborhood association had applied for permits.

The unofficial handshake is an example of City Hall‘s eagerness to clear homeless encampments from the city’s economic and social centers — and the groups are offering facelifts the city doesn’t have to pay for.

On Friday morning, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced an executive ban on camping along roads designated as safe walking and biking routes to the school, a sprawling road network designated by the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Wheeler’s decision to exercise his executive powers, which do not require the approval of his fellow commissioners on the Portland City Council, comes when Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty — the councilman most opposed to camp sweeps — is on vacation. (The mayor’s office says the timing of Wheeler’s statement had nothing to do with Hardesty’s absence.)

Hardesty spokesman Matt McNally says her office was not briefed on the executive order until Wednesday night: “Our office has not been consulted or otherwise informed of this statement.”

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