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Under Pressure, Portland Mayor Delays Moving Homeless Camps

<p>A tent along the Springwater Corridor Trail.</p>

Amelia Templeton


A tent along the Springwater Corridor Trail.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has walked back his plan to clear homeless campers from the Springwater Corridor trail on Aug. 1.

The mayor now says he will give homeless people another month to relocate and connect to social services before calling on police to enforce a camping ban and clear the trail on Sept. 1.

The trail, which stretches from Portland to Boring, is home to an unknown number of homeless people. Hales has estimated at least 400 people are camping there.

Hales acknowledged that his decision may frustrate some residents near the trail in the Lents and Brentwood Darlington neighborhoods who say the camps have undermined their safety and quality of life.

“To wait a little longer maybe will cause some people to fear we don't mean it," he said. “But will also give folks time to do what’s right, which is help people find another place to live and get people to services.”

The mayor had said earlier this month that the city would clear the camps in August. He cited safety problems, including an increase in assaults and environmental damage to the trail and the Johnson Creek Watershed, which the city has heavily invested in restoring.

Grassroots housing and homeless activists groups, including Portland Tenants United and Boots on The Ground, met twice last weekend to craft a strategy to resist the mayor's plan to clear the trail.

Hales said he agreed to delay the sweep after meeting with the activists and attorneys with the Oregon Law Center who represent homeless clients.

“They came to us and said we have clients here and we have to represent them. Legal action is a possibility. Will you negotiate?” Hales recounted. "So we have agreed with them and with those activists, that it's appropriate to take a little more time."

Social service organizations, including Cascadia Behavioral Health and Janus Youth Programs, also said they had asked for more time to do outreach work on the trail.

In the meantime, the city will place additional dumpsters on the trail and increase police patrols in the area.

The activists opposed to Hales' plan have discussed civil disobedience as an option and told homeless people they would support them if they choose to stay on the trail.

If a homeless person refuses to leave the Springwater, that could give advocates an opportunity to file a legal test case challenging the city's ordinances banning camping.

In a widely followed recent case, seven homeless people in Boise, Idaho, argued that the city violated their constitutional rights to freedom from cruel and unusual punishment by enforcing a camping ban when the city failed to provide adequate shelter space.

The U.S. Department of Justice weighed in supporting the argument, saying the ban unfairly criminalized the state of homelessness itself.

But a federal judge ultimately dismissed the case. He ruled that the plaintiffs didn't have standing to bring the case, because they could not show that shelter beds were unavailable on the night of their arrest.

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amelia Templeton is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering Portland city hall, justice and local news. She was previously a reporter for EarthFix, an award-winning public media project covering the environment in the Northwest.