[Posted February 26, 2021]
Homelessness is becoming more visible in Hillsdale. Over the years a number of people have found shelter under the viaduct that carries Capitol Hwy. over Bertha Blvd. as it heads west from the Hillsdale Town Center. Until recently, it was usually just one, maybe two people at a time. Portland’s long-simmering housing crisis has boiled over in the past few years, and the space under the bridge has now become a full-blown encampment.
The situation is not good for anyone involved. Those in residence at the site are living in the cold in tents with no electricity, sanitation, or running water. Neighbors have to contend with garbage, human waste, and increased visits from police and fire crews.
Captain Shane Furrer of Hillsdale’s Station #5 says that camp residents are allowed warming fires in a small container to stay warm during the cold weather. He adds that fire crew response to that location will be limited to medical calls, large fires that threaten tents or neighboring structures, or other threats to the community. This follows multiple physical and verbal assaults on firefighters responding to calls at the camp over more than two months. Beyond the threats to responding firefighters, Furrer also cited the mandatory police response activated by each call as a drain on already scarce police resources.
Acting Portland Police Sgt. Matt Jacobsen acknowledges that the homeless camp on Bertha is concerning for the neighborhood: “It seems like these are problems which have impacted many other parts of the city and haven’t traditionally impacted Hillsdale, so it’s alarming to folks to start dealing with these issues,” he said in a recent phone call. But, he adds, “A lot of people don’t have anywhere to go and homelessness is truly a crisis.”
The scope of the problem, and the response
The annual one-day count of people living outside will not be held this year because of COVID, but the number of unsheltered people in Multnomah County is estimated to be at least 2,000, according to Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran. And, says Meieran, an additional 10,000 people are at risk of losing their housing due to unemployment, illness, substance abuse or mental health problems.
Three recent ballot measures have been approved for new taxes to be collected by the City of Portland and Metro to build housing and prevent more people from becoming homeless. Those initiatives, expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars over the next ten years, will take years to have a real impact on the problem.
In the meantime, there is a shortfall of temporary housing for those currently living on the street.
The real-time response of cleaning up existing camps and helping residents connect to resources falls to the city’s Homeless Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP). HUCIRP is not a solution to homelessness. Its goal, says spokesperson Heather Hafer, is to mitigate the impact of urban camping by collecting camper-identified trash, connecting residents to services, and conducting risk assessments. Camps that meet the criteria, which include visible drug paraphernalia, proximity to schools, blockage of accessible paths of travel and number of structures, may be posted for removal.
According to its website, HUCIRP is typically onsite within 24-72 hours of a report. The website also recommends submitting a new report of the same site once a week to ensure continuing visits. Find information on how to report a campsite or associated garbage here.
HUCIRP recently initiated a new program to provide emergency hygiene stations (portable restrooms and hand washing stations), but because of current usage, funding, and priorities, it is unlikely that any of these facilities will be located at the Bertha Boulevard camp. It’s worth noting that what seems like a much-needed compassionate response is not always welcomed by nearby residents. When the program started back in September, toilets were vandalized, locked, and stolen by unhappy neighbors.
The response in Hillsdale
Hafer says HUCIRP sends crews to the Bertha Blvd. camp periodically to clean up garbage and provide service referrals and that the location will likely be posted for removal at some point, but adds that there are 30 camps across Portland that have been assessed as higher risk and assigned higher priority. Once a camp is removed, HUCIRP does not take any steps to prevent people from moving back in. That would be up to the property owner, in this case PBOT (Portland Bureau of Transportation).
The camp is unlikely to be removed any time soon and the spot is likely to continue to attract new residents. In the meantime, what to do? A local group is asking exactly that question. And they are coming up with some possible answers.
Formed less than a month ago, the group of eight people includes members of religious and civic groups in the greater Hillsdale area. They hope to find solutions to the problems of homelessness in Hillsdale, including health, hygiene, and employment issues.
Don Baack, Hillsdale resident and a member of the newly formed group, says “This is the first time this problem has really come home to Hillsdale, but with the tidal wave that could come when the eviction moratorium expires, we need to do what we can to make this more humane for people and take the pressure off neighbors, local businesses, and natural areas.” Baack is scouting possible locations to let people camp that will minimize the impact on the rest of the community while addressing some of the issues of health and sanitation.
Email Rick Seifert for more information on joining the group to find solutions for homelessness
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