By Steve Kimes
As a Mennonite pastor, I’ve assisted people struggling with homelessness in Portland, Gresham and Eugene for 27 years. I’ve advocated for them and assisted them through countless sweeps.
Here are some of the many acts of systemic cruelty toward the unhoused I have witnessed.
• City sweeps and citations are usually “complaint driven.” I have had neighbors tell me they called the police and lied about what unhoused people were doing on my property. I know of people who drive through the city, looking for camps to complain about.
• Portland has a phone line, an email address and a website for people to report homeless camps. Eugene has a website. City resources are used frequently against people not participating in criminal activity. Portland even hires a cleanup company to help enforce regular sweeps of homeless camps.
• I have seen disabled people cited and fined in Eugene for not being able to move in the time required without any accommodation provided by city governments.
• I have seen city workers in both Portland and Eugene discard survival gear because it was “wet” or “likely to mold” in storage, despite state law requiring storage. In Eugene, the sweeps have begun to use bulldozers to dump whole tents into dumpsters, which does not allow workers to legally determine what could be salvaged and what could not.
• City workers in Portland admitted to me that they have stored seized possessions in Tigard, an hour and a half bus ride from Portland. I helped one person call the retrieval number the workers gave us, and we were told we would get a callback. But no one called.
• I have helped disabled houseless people try to find another location and move in the middle of icy rain.
• I have provided hotel accommodations for people who were forced to move despite being ill during this pandemic. The city of Eugene provided no accommodation.
• I have seen camps of 12 to 20 people forced to move because of the criminal activity or the garbage pile of one individual in the camp.
• I have seen unhoused people blamed for activity such as dumping garbage that they did not do. They were forced to move and/or cited anyway.
• I have seen vehicles cited for being in “storage” and threatened with towing for “abandonment” when the officer citing the vehicle knows that it is not abandoned or stored, but in fact occupied by the owners.
• I have seen these vehicle owners work for days to get a tow from a friend or acquaintance, have the vehicle moved to legal parking, and then cited again in two weeks in the new location by the same officer who cited them the first time.
• I have seen a disabled person, forced to move away from the area she was staying in, weep for hours because she believed that she would never see her boyfriend again because he was in jail and wouldn’t know where she moved to.
• I have seen police hold, cuff and threaten to arrest unhoused people on my private property, although I had granted them permission to be there. An officer screamed at me for allowing these people on my property.
• I have seen people, traumatized by past experiences with police, abandon their property and flee when officers show up.
A barber was allowing a disabled woman from Gresham to stay behind his shop nightly. A local officer cited her for trespassing and threatened to arrest her if he found her anywhere in the city for the next 30 days. The services she needed were in the city, but she worried that if she were arrested her little dogs would be taken. So she took the train out of the city every night and back during the day. She came to our church for rest and a meal, looking sick and exhausted. We asked if we could take her to a hospital, but she refused because she had to follow the officers orders. She walked away from our church that night and died in the parking lot of a Salvation Army.
Police, homeless advocates and experts all agree that arrests, citations and sweeps do nothing to address the underlying issues of homelessness. Criminalization of houseless people only serves to perpetuate cycles of homelessness.
Contact your Oregon legislator to support House Bill 2367, the Right to Rest act. It is time for us, as communities, to see police work as the answer to homelessness, which only serves to punish the poorest of our neighbors, and to discover real solutions.
Steve Kimes is pastor of Eugene Mennonite Church and has assisted houseless people for 27 years throughout Oregon.