Portland contends with an unfolding public health crisis as the pandemic relents: Homeless encampments

PORTLAND, Ore. — Jeremy Wooldridge had just finished mowing the grass around his tent when

PORTLAND, Ore. — Jeremy Wooldridge had just finished mowing the grass around his tent when he saw a truck pull up in front of his homeless encampment. He’d spent the past two years living here alongside a dead-end road in a neighborhood called Sumner, gradually overtaking a vacant field between a taxi company and a high school. He knew most of the nearby families by name and the makes and models of their cars, but this was a visitor he didn’t recognize.

He watched as three people got out and started coming toward his tent with a bright green sign labeled, “Illegal Campsite.” They walked past the small flower bed he’d planted nearby and up to a hand-painted boulder he’d placed on the sidewalk that read: “Welcome to Our Home.”

“Can I help you?” Jeremy asked. They handed him a box filled with sandwiches, bottled water, a new tent, and a sleeping bag and then introduced themselves as contractors for the city.

“So that’s it?” he said. “You came here to deliver gifts?”

“No. We need to start moving you out of here,” one of the contractors said. “I hate to say it, but it’s time to go.”

After more than a year of allowing most homeless camps to remain intact so as not to displace people during the pandemic, cities across the country are now beginning to confront another public health crisis unfolding on their streets. The number of Americans who are homeless has increased in each of the past five years, according to government data, and for the first time more than half of homeless adults are living not in shelters but in tents or sleeping bags outside. There has yet to be a nationwide homelessness count since the start of the pandemic, but a quarter of Americans now report being at “imminent risk” of losing their homes, and cities up and down the West Coast say they are overwhelmed by an unprecedented rise in homeless people, hazardous encampments and related trash.

This month, as Portland announced plans to start removing more camps, the city said it has gone from having an average of about six large encampments before the pandemic to what it now estimates to be more than 100.

One of them was Jeremy’s camp on Emerson Street, which had grown during the last year into a small village of six tents and five makeshift structures built from fencing, wood pallets, disassembled trampoline parts, and tarps. The field was covered with 10-foot-high piles of scavenged construction materials, and strewn between the tents were rotting couches, car parts, a piano, a cement mixer and dozens of bicycles in various stages of disrepair. The camp had also grown during the past year to attract more people, a few of whom were newly homeless and others who came and went to visit friends or stay for a night. The nearby school and surrounding neighbors had filed a series of complaints to the city as a divide intensified over what to make of an emerging homeless crisis. The neighborhood looked at the encampment and saw suspicious cars, noxious campfire smoke, unleashed dogs, petty crime, drug paraphernalia and another field of hazardous waste in a city that the mayor said was becoming “a shocking affront to the senses.”

But Jeremy, who was 43, saw the only possessions he owned — items he could repair, trade, or sell in order to live a life on the distant margins of a city where he increasingly had nowhere else to go.

“So you just start trashing my things?” he said to the contractors.

“No. It’s a process,” one of them said. “We can put things in storage for you. You can take whatever you want as long as we clear this area. We’ll be back to get started in 48 hours.”

“Can I get 72?”

“Sorry, bud. It’s 48.”

The contractors drove away and Jeremy walked up to a hill overlooking the camp. He started writing down an inventory of all his belongings, until after a while another resident came up to join him. Shannon Stickler, 48, had been living in the encampment on and off for a few months, ever since she was temporarily laid off from her job during the pandemic and forced out of her three-bedroom home after falling $7,500 behind on rent. She’d moved with her 13-year-old daughter into a relative’s house, and then into a budget motel, and finally into their Hyundai Elantra. Eventually she’d put her belongings into storage and sent her daughter to live with a friend. She’d packed a suitcase of clothes, carpentry tools for her construction job, therapy coloring books and Zoloft, and moved into the only place she could think to go: a homeless camp four blocks from the house where she’d been living when the pandemic began.

“It seems like every place I go disappears once I get there,” she told Jeremy. “What options do we have?”

“Bad ones,” he said. Portland had limited affordable housing, and after more than a decade spent living on the street, he didn’t want to move into a shelter and adhere to someone else’s rules.

“So where will we go?” Shannon asked. “Sorry if I’m being slow. I’m new to all this.”

Jeremy shrugged. “I don’t know any more than you. We’ve got two days, and then we’ll have to figure something out.”

***

The Sumner neighborhood was one of the smallest communities in Portland: 850 modest houses on the outskirts of town, a home to middle-class families and retirees in a city where most other places had become unaffordable. “A quiet, sequestered little area,” was how Sumner advertised itself, and yet like almost everywhere else in Portland, it had become a destination for a growing number of people without housing.

Yvonne Rice was the chair of the neighborhood association, and she’d grown up in Sumner when it had no visible homeless population. Now there were a dozen nearby encampments, and week after week, she saw more tents lined up by the fence of the high school, more hammocks strung between Douglas firs in the community park and hundreds of tarps and sleeping bags bordering the highway.

All of the encampments troubled her, but the one that troubled her the most — the one she called “the mansion on Emerson Street” — was Jeremy’s. A few families on Emerson Street had already decided to sell their homes to get away from the encampment, and some nearby businesses were threatening to move elsewhere. But instead of surrendering to the reality of an entrenched camp during the pandemic, Yvonne had been posting about it on community forums and holding neighborhood meetings to push for its removal. Portland officials were receiving hundreds of complaints about illegal campsites each week from across the city, and Yvonne believed there was only one way for an out-of-the-way neighborhood to get the city’s attention.

“Report it and keep reporting it,” she told her neighbors, and so some residents had gone onto the city’s website each week to create a public record of life on Emerson Street as the pandemic unfolded.

“I watch daily as the fortress of garbage grows.”

“Loud banging and glass breaking noises at 2 or 3 a.m.”

“I understand we are in the midst of a pandemic. I also understand that the city council has put in place rules as far as moving people. I am truly compassionate about their circumstances, but they are not living here responsibly and are putting everyone around them at risk.”

“This camp keeps increasing in size and they are burning garbage at night. This is right outside Broadway Cab, where fire and gasoline don’t mix.”

“Junk everywhere, loud noises, and trash. The same thing I have been reporting for months but nothing ever happens.”

“The flames from their fires are 6-feet high as seen from my window. Noxious smoke fills the air. It makes breathing difficult. I am now using an inhaler because of lung issues. I have to bring in my animals, close the windows, run A/C units and air cleaners.”

“What does it take to get rid of this site???”

“They are making me and my wife sicker every day! The toxic smoke and thieves creeping around at all hours has our anxiety maxed out. PLEASE!”

“The camp is right next to our high school. Needles are found at the basketball court where our students play. Some of our students are rehabilitating from drugs, and this just makes it unacceptable to say the least. There has been vandalism to the school’s vehicles. Stolen bikes. Human waste. Ongoing drug use. The list goes on.”

“Please, please, please clean this spot. Please find a way to permanently address this issue. Please. I shouldn’t have to beg, but I’m begging you at this point.”

The neighbors had filed 174 complaints about Emerson Street since the start of the pandemic. They’d called 911 about homelessness issues at least 14 times. The fire department had responded to two out-of-control campfires. The city had tried sending out social workers and trash cleanup teams, and finally now, after so many months, Yvonne started the latest community meeting by announcing that maybe the end had finally come.

“The city just issued the two-day warning,” she said. “Hallelujah.”

***

Jeremy spent the first of those two days at the encampment tinkering with a broken bicycle. Another resident drank half a bottle of whiskey. Another talked to herself and recited Bible verses while she searched for flakes of gold in the mud outside her tent. Meanwhile Shannon woke up to her alarm at 4:30 a.m., drove 90 minutes to her construction job site, worked an 8-hour shift doing finishing work on a new bank, stopped on her way home to deliver five online food orders to earn extra money, and then returned to the camp 12 hours later to find everything exactly the same as when she’d left.

“Hey, the clock’s ticking,” she said to Jeremy. “Are we getting organized to move out of here or what?”

He looked up from working on his bicycle, lifted his beer, and raised it in her direction. “I’m still in the processing phase,” he said.

“Okay,” she said. “While you do that, I guess I’ll go find us a storage unit.”

She’d met Jeremy six months earlier, after she discovered that her daughter was stopping by the homeless encampment sometimes after school, giving away secondhand clothes and befriending a few residents. At first Shannon had been furious, and she’d repeated the same warnings to her daughter about drug use, fire and petty crime that she’d seen from her neighbors on the community message board. But then she’d started coming along with her daughter to the camp, where she rarely saw any needles, and where she’d grown to appreciate Jeremy’s dark sense of humor. She’d started telling him about all the ways her own life was unraveling, and when she mentioned that she was losing her home, running out of money and considering sleeping in her car, he’d suggested she park it next to the encampment so he could help make sure she was safe. He’d made a little money by recycling cans and used it to buy pet food for her two dogs. Another resident of the camp had welcomed her with a gift of deodorizer spray and a bucket she could use as a bathroom. They’d taught her how to use the nearby truck stop for showers and how to store her food high up away from rats.

She still didn’t think of herself as one of them. “I wouldn’t exactly call us homeless,” she’d told her daughter, and she’d refused to consider living in a shelter in part because she couldn’t take her dogs, but also because it felt like an admission. She just needed a night or two in her car to figure things out. Just a safe place near the encampment to close her eyes between shifts as she waited for her next paycheck from work. Just a week or so inside one of the tents while she searched real estate applications on her phone for an affordable, dog-friendly apartment, but now three months had gone by, and she still couldn’t find anything in Portland for less than $1,200, and instead of moving into a home she was being evicted from the camp.

She thought she needed to save a total of $5,000 to pay for a first month’s rent, fees and security deposits on a new apartment, but even though she was making $700 each week, she’d learned that living on the street was expensive: $11 for each trip to the laundromat; $15 to shower at the truck stop; $20 a day for fast food since she had no stove, microwave, or refrigerator; $3 for bottled water and a lotto ticket when she needed to use the gas station bathroom that was for customers only; $68 when she wanted to spend a night with her daughter at the cheapest nearby motel; and now a new monthly expense to buy storage for belongings she couldn’t afford to take anyplace else.

“I’m just looking for whatever’s cheapest,” she told the receptionist at the storage facility.

“Let me see what’s available,” the receptionist said. She typed on her computer while Shannon looked at the sterilized hallways of identical red garage doors, the bathroom scented by perfume, the gleaming floors and motion-sensor lights.

“It’s so nice here,” Shannon said. “You have a beautiful setup.”

“Thank you. We take a lot of pride in it, but it’s getting harder to keep anything looking clean around here.”

The receptionist motioned out the window and Shannon followed her eyes to a small homeless encampment on the sidewalk. There were four tents crowded together next to a busted RV with a sign in the window that read: “Never Give Up.”

“We run a tight ship,” the receptionist said. “We take our customer security very seriously. It’s unpleasant to look at, but it doesn’t affect us. You don’t need to worry. We make sure they never come beyond our driveway.”

“Oh,” Shannon said. “It won’t bother me.”

“I get into work and there’s always a pile of trash waiting for me. It’s like, ‘Come on, people. Have a little dignity.’ ”

“I feel for them,” Shannon said. “We all have our upside-down moments in life.”

“That’s true,” the receptionist said. She smiled and then slid over a bill for the cheapest storage unit, a 10-by-10-foot one on the third floor. Shannon handed over her debit card to pay $81 for the first month and then went outside to light a cigarette. She smoked as she did the math in her head, subtracting backward from her goal of $5,000, calculating what the storage unit would ultimately cost her, imagining a few extra nights in her car or a tent.

She finished the cigarette, glanced down at the clean parking lot, and decided to tuck the butt back into her pocket so she could throw it away somewhere else. Then she walked to her car and drove back for her last night in the camp.

***

The next morning, before nine cleanup crews were dispatched to remove encampments across Portland, a small group of city workers met to discuss everything that could possibly go wrong.

The job of removing illegal campsites in the liberal city had always required a delicate balance of empathy and enforcement, but during the past year the work of the three-person Homelessness and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program had become particularly fraught. Before the pandemic, the group had helped carry out 50 or 60 removals each week, which meant encampments stayed small and the most problematic sites were typically gone within a month. But the city had stopped all removals at the beginning of the pandemic, working instead to create 125 emergency hygiene stations to protect homeless people from the worst impacts of covid-19. When the city decided to resume a small number of removals five months later, the encampments had become so much bigger and more entrenched that it sometimes took crews up to three weeks just to remove a single site, even as dozens of other encampments continued to grow.

Now officials estimated it would take up to two years to remove millions of pounds of homelessness-related trash and get the city back to its pre-pandemic condition, and already Portland residents had run out of patience. The impact reduction team was receiving a record 1,700 phone calls, emails, and online complaints about illegal encampments each week. “Thanks for turning Portland into a dump!” “You have failed.” “How about I pitch a tent outside YOUR house?” And then there were other threats, which came from the opposite perspective: that it was inhumane to remove camps at all. A group of far-left activists had begun offering support and also protection to some large encampments, occasionally carrying weapons, and vowing to stop removals by force.

The city had decided the best way forward was to increase removals — but only as what it called an “act of last resort.” First a team of social workers went into each camp to refer people to homeless shelters, mental health services, and addiction treatment. They screened residents for a small number of spots in permanent housing. They offered help applying for state IDs and jobs. They cleaned all the surrounding trash, hoping to mitigate the impact of the camp. And only then, if the camp continued to present a hazard to both residents and the public after days or often months of intervention, did the city post a 48-hour warning and add it to a weekly list of sites to remove.

On this Monday, the city sent its contractors a list of 14 sites:

A middle school with two tents and three broken-down RVs blocking access to the student drop-off zone.

A vacant lot near Costco, where some homeless residents had been living for long enough to lay concrete foundations and start building rustic homes.

A highway underpass with at least 20 residents, where the nearby building was charred by fire damage.

A cul-de-sac littered with stolen and disassembled vehicles located next to the DMV.

During the past several years, Portland had systemically eliminated some of its tools for policing life in homeless encampments. Oregon had decriminalized the possession of small amounts of heroin and methamphetamine, which were common in camps. Portland had cut its police budget by $15 million and gutted its neighborhood response team. Increasingly, the city’s homelessness enforcement was left up to teams of contractors armed with nothing but de-escalation training, heavy-duty gloves, Naloxone to treat opioid overdoses, garbage bags and orange buckets to carry away human waste.

The crews had dealt with fires, mental health crises, outbreaks of infectious disease and anarchists who tried to stop removals by standing in front of their trucks, and now one of those trucks pulled up to the encampment on Emerson Street.

***

Jeremy was the only person in the camp when the truck arrived. Shannon was at work, and a few of the other residents had already moved or scattered, so he walked alone into the street to greet three contractors wearing red construction vests. They handed him sandwiches and water and said they would begin the removal by hauling away several truckloads of unwanted trash to the city dump. They told Jeremy to start going through his belongings to decide what he wanted to keep.

“I don’t understand how I’m bothering anybody,” Jeremy said, but when nobody answered, he went back into the camp to sort through his things as a few neighbors began gathering on the sidewalk to watch the removal.

“We need to claim this space as our own,” said Yvonne, the president of the neighborhood association. “As soon as he’s gone, we should turn it into a community garden.”

“Or a fenced-in dog park,” said Ronda Johnson, who worked on homelessness issues for the neighborhood association.

“Sure. Anything,” Yvonne said. “I’d be okay bringing in some boulders just to make camping impossible.”

Yvonne went to buy doughnuts and drinks for the contracting crew as a thank you gift, and Ronda walked into the camp to talk to Jeremy, who she’d been trying to help for the last year. She’d brought him trash bags and food during the pandemic and encouraged him to get his covid vaccination. Several times, she’d offered to take him to her office so they could call shelters, but he’d always refused, just as he’d refused housing efforts made by the city. The Portland area had only 1,500 shelter beds for more than 4,000 homeless people, which meant shelters could be restrictive. Many required wait lists and signed agreements about curfews, cleanliness, and community living. Jeremy had told Ronda that he was better off on his own, outside, where he could store all of his things.

“What’s the plan now, Jeremy?” she asked. “Do you even know where you’re sleeping tonight?”

“Why? So you can start reporting me again to the city?”

“I’m serious,” she said. “You can’t keep moving around this neighborhood with a mountain of trash.”

She walked through the camp and looked at the stacks of Jeremy’s belongings. The contractors had already taken away an old piano, two couches, a kitchen sink, some cabinetry and five orange buckets of waste. But most of the field was still covered with things Jeremy wanted to keep or put into storage: dozens of bikes, car tires, shopping cars and old leather chairs.

Ronda pointed to a rusted fireplace with a bent exhaust pipe. “I mean, what are you going to do with this?”

“Might be able to fix it,” he said. “You ever slept outside in December? It’s damn cold.”

She rolled her eyes and walked over to a stack of wood pallets, tarps, and broken trampoline parts. She picked up a bucket filled with hundreds of rusted nails. “Come on, Jeremy. This is a hazard. It has to go.”

“Construction supplies,” he said. He smiled at her. “That’s my next camp.”

“Jeremy, it’s junk.”

“To you,” he said. “It’s junk to you. I find stuff. I fix it up. I use it. I sell it. I’m not going around begging or asking for anything from anybody. This is it. This is how I get by.”

She looked at him and shook her head. “You need a solution, Jeremy — a real, permanent solution.”

“A real solution,” he said. “Got it. Thanks for your concern.”

***

It took the contracting crew five days and a half-dozen trips to haul out 8,000 pounds to the dump, until finally the encampment was gone and the field was vacant except for Jeremy and Shannon, who were still sitting in the grass, trying to decide where to go.

“What do you think?” Shannon asked. “Give me your options.”

“Does it look like I have options?” Jeremy asked.

Shannon had booked a few nights in a motel to bide time while Jeremy looked for a new place to camp. He’d put most of his belongings into storage, but he still had a few rickety carts loaded with tents, tarps and construction supplies, which meant he couldn’t travel far. He’d scouted out a possible spot on a hill overlooking a factory, but he doubted his carts could make it up the embankment. He’d considered moving into an existing encampment on the highway median, but it was exposed to heat and wind, and a homeless person had been found dead in his tent in the same spot a few years earlier.

“I might have one idea,” he said, and he led Shannon up the road to a small house in the center of the neighborhood, where the owner had been paying Jeremy $15 to mow the yard. An azalea hedge bordered the lawn, and next to the hedge was an empty patch of grass less than 10 yards wide.

“You’re crazy,” Shannon said. “What’s going to happen when these neighbors wake up in the morning and see you?”

“They know me,” Jeremy said. “They like me.”

“They don’t like you that much. They’ll go ballistic.”

“You think anyone’s rolling out a welcome mat?” Jeremy asked. “Why do you think I’m going to move in the middle of the night?”

“It can’t be here,” Shannon said. “No. No way.”

They sat on the sidewalk until the last light disappeared from the sky. Shannon smoked a cigarette and Jeremy drank beer. It started to rain, and Jeremy rushed into the street to throw a tarp over his trailers. “Damn it,” he said, and then he looked down the block and saw what seemed at that moment like his best and only option for a new place to live.

It wasn’t a house. It wasn’t an apartment or a shelter or a real solution. It was a tiny strip of burnt grass wedged between the sidewalk and the taxicab company on the exact same street where neighbors had been complaining about his encampment since the pandemic began.

He walked 75 yards down the block from the old camp, and pitched a tent. He carried over another tent, and then another, and then a shopping cart loaded with some of his things. By the time the sun came up the next morning, the Sumner neighborhood had a new homeless encampment, and already the first official complaint was on its way to the city. “Importance: High,” the email read, and underneath that was the subject line.

“Same camp back on Emerson Street.”