July 4 shooting at ‘Camplandia’ highlights size of, concerns about homeless population along Springwater Corridor

Just a couple weeks after the Portland city council’s June 20, 2016 decision to include a $258 million affordable housing bond measure for the November election, a reporter’s visit to the Springwater Corridor proved a startling reminder of the growing scope of the local homeless population.

Depending on how you define a “camp,” the bicycle trail and footpath area between SE 82nd Ave. and the Beggar’s Tick wildlife refuge at 111th Ave. is possibly the largest homeless camp in the city of Portland, perhaps even all of Oregon.

It promises enormous challenges for any police officers, park rangers, advocates, officials or neighbors who would try to “sweep,” relocate or re-house these hundreds of campers.

It also suggests that the geography of poverty is a crucial aspect of the situation: for all intents and purposes, in Summer 2016, along the Springwater Corridor, the place is the people and the people are the place. 
 
Based in a July 5, 2016 visual assessment by bicycle and on foot, including trips into the footpaths winding into the bramble, the area between SE 82nd and Beggar’s Tick is now home to 188 tents, lean-tos, shanties or other structures, with several hundred individuals living in them. At “The Fields,” aka “Headquarters,” the largest camp and the nearest to SE Portland food cart pod Cartlandia, people worry that a new police sweep is probably imminent after a non-lethal shooting on July 4 sent a man to OHSU, according to reports in the camp.
 
Just as a reporter’s trip to visit a corporation or organization typically draws the careful guidance of a spokesperson, so a mask-wearing individual named “Crash Anarchy” quickly greeted and steered a reporter safely around the large camp, sprawling hundreds of feet beyond the Portland Parks & Rec-managed hardtop into blackberry bramble, lovely wildflowers and tall grasses. Unlike your typical corporate flack, however, Crash had to set down a bong she was epoxying to do so, and kept a ‘V for Vendetta’ mask on during the conversation.

‘Crash Anarchy,’ a self-appointed spokesperson for the largest Springwater Corridor camp. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

“I’m just the mouthpiece,” quipped the highly intelligent, 34-year-old, self-described “hipster” and laid-off aerospace steelworker who described their gender as “answers may vary.” (Research suggests transgender people and individuals of color are disproportionately represented amongst the homeless, which anecdotal evidence from the Springwater camps appears to confirm.) Crash kidded themself for locking up their tent with a padlock, but noted that now, after five and a half years of living along the Springwater, the move mostly deters theft. Crash’s professed drug of choice is marijuana, which may account for how lucid they were compared to other interviewees.

The camps are amazing to see in broad daylight, though doubtless scary at night. Furniture, including heavy items like dressers, are set to within inches of the Springwater Corridor itself in some places, suggesting how much work campers have put into their homes. Soccer ball sized rocks delineate pathways filled with wood bark leading to shared campsites, and some tents are lovingly cared for, with immaculate gardens featuring five-foot sunflowers nearing bloom.

A tent and carefully-tended garden in ‘Cartlandia,’ a.k.a. ‘The Fields,’ or ‘Headquarters,’ the largest camp along the Springwater Corridor. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

On the heels of a lawsuit from a coalition of business and neighborhood groups calling itself Safe & Liveable Portland—which includes the food cart pod Cartlandia — incoming Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler appears to have distanced himself from Mayor Hales and Josh Alpert’s “Safe Sleep” plan, suggesting the “Safe Sleep” approach will not be carried forward. The lawsuit’s concerns over violence and unsafe firepits certainly appear to be present at the Springwater Corridor camps.

But places like “Camplandia” — another of Crash’s nicknames for this largest of the camps, perhaps 40–50 souls — raise tough questions about whether Springwater Corridor homeless encampments can be relocated or displaced at all.
 
How many police officers, park rangers and homeless outreach workers would it take to actually clear out the camps? Which municipalities or agencies, amongst a group of stakeholders that includes the cities of Portland and Gresham, police, parks, Bureau of Environmental Services, Oregon Dept. of Transportation and homeless outreach and services workers, would do it? Possibly, the placement of portapotties and dumpsters along the stretch is recognition that such a large population can’t easily be moved, much less helped back into traditional housing, under the best of circumstances.

“A lot of people don’t realize the kind of community we have down here,” Crash said, showing off her “minimalist” tent to a reporter, and recalling when an overdose became known by “600” people within two hours merely by word of mouth. “We finally have a spot where we can live safely.”

“We’re peaceful; we’re not dirtbags.”
 
Next to the portapotties and dumpsters, piles of garbage, firepits and dozens of shopping carts suggest the desperation of survival on the street for such a large group continues to pose a huge logistical challenge.

There is also violence.

Jason, who says he doesn’t live at the camp but has friends who do, and who says his drug of choice is “H,” saw a shooting in a tent at the camp July 4, he said.
 
“It went through here and came out here,” he said, nonchalantly, pointing to the side of his abdomen. “He’s gonna be fine, still in hospital right now, OHSU.”

Jason, 24, said he witnessed a non-lethal shooting at ‘Camplandia’ July 4 that sent a man to OHSU Hospital. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

“A lot of these people, they want help,” James says. “They have to help themselves, really.”

He was remarkably “flat affect,” as social workers sometimes say, about the shooting of a friend and the potential consequences, legal or otherwise.

“Cops just roll through,” he said with a shrug.

Crash was more concerned about the implications.

“We’re going to get kicked out next week,” Crash said. “They will lock people up when they come.”

Tom Alvarado, a customer at Cartlandia and local who often bikes down the corridor at perhaps a slower rate than the constant stream of Spandex-clad flyers, is sure the Springwater situation is becoming more precarious. Alvarado says recently he’s had to stop and basically ask permission from campers to bike through crowds blocking the path. He’s seen piles of feces on the trail itself for the first time in the last few days.
 
“It’s crazy,” Alvarado says. “It’s apocalyptic down there. It sucks all around: it sucks to be homeless, but it sucks to be someone who pays rent and deals with it.”

Estimates of Seattle’s infamous, now-displaced “Jungle” camp (111 in 2016, by city officials and United Gospel Mission) appear smaller than the likely totals for this stretch of the Springwater. Even though there is a mile’s distance between Cartlandia and Beggar’s Tick, the multiple camps appear to function as a single whole, with many campers on bicycles. West of 82nd to the Ross Island Bridge area, only a single individual in a sleeping bag could be seen along the Springwater.
 
A July 5 presentation at the Portland Housing Advisory Commission meeting showed that half of the 1,300 affordable housing units to be created by a $258.4M affordable housing bond are intended be given to extremely low income (0 to 30% of Area Median Income) individuals. The bond would be an estimated $75 tax burden annually for the typical Portland homeowner.

Still, new inclusionary zoning policies being instituted by the Portland Housing Bureau, called MULTE, which mandate units for people making under 80% of Area Median Income, won’t even touch Crash, or “Mohawk,” the ex-Army National Guardsman who holds court and rocks 94.7FM at the center of Camplandia, or Sam Blaga, 39, who is living out of his car near Beggar’s Tick Wildlife Refuge on the other side of I-205. These are extremely low or zero income individuals, for the most part, though some do work, and a thriving sharing economy appears to be present in the camps.

‘Mohawk,’ an ex-Army National Guardsman who lives at the center of ‘Cartlandia,’ shows his hands. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Like many, Blaga’s problems just cascaded into the negative.
 
“It all started with a little vacation,” Blaga explained, sober as a judge and munching on a burrito. “It,” as in: car accident, lower back pain, lost job, waiting for an insurance settlement, car thefts, wallet stolen.

Sam Blaga says a car accident started a series of events that led to him sleeping in a car along the Springwater Corridor. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Blaga has bags of garbage in his car, he says, because he hates littering.
 
“I’m not supposed to be broke,” he says; “on the streets I’m just getting shut down, nonstop.” Blaga watches and munches as Doug Coleman talks about his recent work as a content provider and podcast creator for ReadWrite, a website.

Doug Coleman says he has worked writing content for website ReadWrite. Photo by Thacher Schmid.

Across the street, Bill Ray, 50, a worker at American Wood Dryers, says the wildlife refuge, with its several RVs parked in front, is home to frequent drug activity, but “we don’t actually get too many problems. The cops patrol this pretty good.”

Asked about Alpert and Hales’ Safe Sleep policy, and the possibility that Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler will be less tolerant of camping, Crash said that would be “awful.”

“The only reason we don’t have to be afraid to fall asleep is because we have each other,” Crash said. “Shuffling people up and down the bike trail and giving them exclusions is not fixing the problem.”

Safe Sleep allows for a maximum of 8 structures or individuals in a single campsite, so Camplandia is certainly not allowed under Safe Sleep or any other city policies, past or future. Parks and Rec and ODOT, which a reporter observed cleaning up under the I-205 freeway corridor along with an inmate work crew, have reputations for being more stringent about homeless camps than the city of Portland.

But rules are rules, and they may not matter once people “have no f**ks left to give,” as the popular saying goes.

“All [police sweeps] do is put a band-aid on an artery that’s been severed,” Crash said.

“I think it goes back to what the hippies were trying to do,” said a guy in askew aviator sunglasses who called himself “Patrick Patrick” (an obvious repurposing of this reporter’s name, which he misheard) before asking Sam and a reporter for a mobile charger.

Done with his burrito, Sam just smoked a cig and listened to a reporter’s conversation with Blaga and Coleman and “Patrick Patrick,” or whatever his real name is.

Passing dozens of people along the path while bicycling out, admiring seemingly every kind of wildflower, wondering about the allure of a bit of summertime freedom amidst a concatenation of poverty, chemical use and desperation, a reporter overheard a ruddy-faced twenty-something in a bandana yelling about Steel Reserve, clearly in an altered state. Eye contact. Then:

“Howya doing? Please pray for me!”