Neighborhood Association and Nonprofit Make Handshake Deal With City to Fence Off Recently Cleared Homeless Camps


The Pearl District Neighborhood Association and a trash-pickup nonprofit have cut an informal deal with the city of Portland to place bark dust, fences and ”Do Not Enter” signs on camps recently swept by the city along Interstate 405.

That nonprofit—We Heart Portland—partnered with neighborhood volunteers from the Pearl District over the past two months to give six blocks of land along I-405 in Northwest Portland a facelift, along with additional deterrents to tent camping.

As Portlanders debate Mayor Ted Wheeler’s executive order banning tent camping along roads known as Safe Routes to School, the volunteer effort in the Pearl District shows how the mayor’s previous executive order—banning camping along highways—works in practice.

In some places, people swept from highway shoulders simply return to their previous campsites. In others, a league of volunteers coordinates with the city to assure that won’t happen.

Stan Penkin, president of the neighborhood association, says volunteers flooded the city’s camp complaint portal in an effort to hasten the city’s cleanup of camps along the six-block stretch they targeted.

Once the city posted the camp for removal, a city staffer alerted Penkin, and We Heart Portland and volunteers urged campers to seek shelter before it was swept and offered to help pick up trash. Of the around 40 tents swept, by Penkin’s estimate, Penkin says, he estimates they referred 20-25 people to shelter.

Then, volunteers placed bark dust over the ground, surrounded it with makeshift twine fencing, and placed signs telling people not to enter, citing a neighborhood beautification project.

A staffer in the mayor’s office confirmed to WW that the city has been working with the neighborhood association to alert them when they’ve cleared a camp, but that no formal agreement is in writing.

The unofficial partnership in removing people in tents and taking extra steps to assure they don’t come back comes loaded with controversy.

We Heart Portland is an offshoot of We Heart Seattle, a nonprofit formed in late 2020 by a woman named Andrea Suarez. Seattle City Council last year rebuffed the organization’s tactics, with several expressing they felt it bordered on harassment of homeless people. One member likened it to burglary.

WW wrote about the nonprofit’s entrance into Portland in May.

Suarez is a controversial figure in Seattle. Her and the president of the Portland chapter, Kevin Dahlgren, have appeared on a number of conservative podcasts to talk about what they call the “homeless industrial complex” and to argue that mutual aid groups enable homeless people by being too generous with food and tents. That’s drawn the ire of housing advocates in Seattle.

Suarez told WW in May: “We’re truth tellers and we question the status quo, and that hasn’t always gone over well.…Work is a virtue,” Suarez says. “There’s that element of, ‘Someone is cleaning and doing something for me, and I start to feel like that makes more sense than lying over here on garbage and sticking a needle in my arm.”

The land embankments alongside Interstate-405 are owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation but maintained by the city of Portland, per a 2019 agreement. ODOT spokesperson David House says any new infrastructure or installments—such as fencing and signs—would require ODOT approval. ODOT could not immediately say whether the city or the neighborhood association sought a permit.

The unofficial handshake deal the parties have with the city is one exhibit of the city’s eagerness to clear homeless encampments from economic and social hubs of the city—the groups are offering beautification resources the city doesn’t have to fund.

On Friday morning, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced an executive ban on camping along streets deemed safe walking and biking paths to school, an expansive network of roads designated under the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

Wheeler’s decision, which circumvents the consent of his fellow commissioners because he used executive powers, comes during Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty’s vacation—the City Council member that’s been most oppositional to sweeps. (The mayor’s office says Hardesty’s absence had nothing to do with the timing of the declaration.)

Matt McNally, spokesperson for Hardesty, says her office wasn’t briefed on the executive order until Wednesday evening: “Our office was not consulted or informed about this declaration otherwise.”


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