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'At wits' end': Portland sees exodus of families, chased out by city's growing homeless camps

Rebecca Smeyne/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Every day if you go from one end of the street to the other, you’re confronting some very difficult situations, people in really dire straits," Portland resident Mark Smith told KGW8. Smith and his partner no longer feel safe walking alone or gardening in their neighborhood in North Portland, Oregon. After all, a homeless camp wherein 50 people live now straddles their back yard.

As of a January 26 head count released in a May report, Portland had 6,633 homeless persons, up considerably from 2017, which saw 4,177 homeless. Only 2,222 of those counted in 2022 were in shelters.

Although many had made camp outside businesses, these camps are no longer a problem limited to the downtown core, where the alleys are lined with garbage and used drug needles and homeless addicts openly traffic and buy heroin, meth, and fentanyl. Encampments now encroach on residential areas.

Families are beginning to flee McKenna Avenue, for instance, citing the homeless camps as cause. For-sale signs are becoming more and more common.

Real estate broker Lauren Iaquinta suggested that she has seen a great deal of migration to the suburbs over the past two years. "Most people don't want to have to worry about if they can leave their car parked in their driveway overnight without maybe having it broken into."

Iaquinta explained to KGW8 that it's "neighborhood by neighborhood. You can be driving through North Portland and you're in this lovely area where there's no issues, and then you can make a turn around the corner and have homeless camps there. It's kind of sad."

Although the city periodically tears down encampments, the problem nevertheless persists.

Tom Karwaki, secretary of the University Park Neighborhood Association, said last week that the city's camp cleanups are merely a temporary solution. "They can just come back. In the past they've cleaned it up and usually within a week to two weeks there's people back there."

Between July 11 and July 17, the city's Impact Reduction Program received 1,650 new campsite reports, observed 340 active campsites, and assessed approximately 668 campsites, some containing biohazardous materials.

One homeowner told reporter Angela Hart that "Portland makes it really easy to be homeless. ... There's always somebody giving away free tents, sleeping bags, clothes, water, sandwiches, three meals a day — it's all here."

When asked by KGW8 about their reasons for living in one homeless encampment that was torn down last week, two respondents suggested it's about drugs. "It's largely due to my drug use," said an individual referred to as Girtz.

Oregon decriminalized most hard drugs in 2020, including heroin and meth. Overdoses increased by 41% the following year, hitting an all-time high.

This week, Karwaki told reporters, "The community is at its wits' end. ... No one feels safe."

Safety is a growing concern, especially since Portland is presently closing in on last year's record murder rate. Not including officer-involved shootings or suicides, as of August 17, there have been 58 homicides in Portland.

In February, the director of the U.S. Geologic Survey Oregon, Dan Crammond, noted how the homeless camps had gone from "sad realities" to "intolerable conditions." Crammond didn't blame the homeless, however, but rather the City of Portland.

Portland's Democrat Mayor Ted Wheeler has deflected blame, demanding more state and federal investment. "We are not appropriately scaled to the size and scope of the problem."

Wheeler banned the kind of homeless encampments now seen growing in residential areas from appearing near highways and other high-traffic areas in February.

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