Portland is Towing Caravans of RVs Off the Streets. Here’s What It’s Like Inside Those Motor Homes.
This city has never before seen so many recreational vehicles parked on its streets.
By Thacher Schmid
There is a stretch of North Lombard Street called the Strip: a line of 12 RVs parked snout to bumper on the west side of the road, across from Pier Park in the St. Johns neighborhood.
There’s a Prowler, a Country Camper, a Minnie Winnie, a Jamboree and a Gulfstream. None of the motor homes is hooked up to water or sewer, and most use portable generators for electricity. They provide the only houses their owners can afford.
The Strip has existed for six months. Francisco Claudio, 39, is a resident, living in his 1980 Itasca Sunflyer RV when he isn’t working day-labor gigs or odd jobs. And he knows that he, along with his fellow RV dwellers, is not welcome here.
“It’s a lack of knowledge,” he says, “just ignorance.” He pauses. “I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t want that shit in my neighborhood either.”
Portland has never before seen so many recreational vehicles parked on its streets. City officials estimate as many as 500 motor homes and camper vans are currently being used as dwellings while parked along curbs and sidewalks. That’s 10 times the number the city estimated just two years ago.
In the first six months of 2017, city officials received 4,133 reports of derelict RVs on Portland streets — more than they received all last year.
In a city with a crippling shortage of affordable apartments and a skyrocketing cost of living, lines of RVs have become the latest symbol of a frayed social safety net. Across Portland, clusters are growing. The largest concentrations become temporary neighborhood landmarks: eight on Southeast 94th Avenue in Lents, 10 in the Roseway neighborhood east of I-205, and the dozen on the Strip.
“A year ago, we weren’t talking about this,” says Dave Benson, who manages parking for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. “This has been an explosion of RVs appearing in the right of way, and we’ve been playing catchup.”
Police say the RVs are being used for more than shelter: They describe them as drug houses and brothels on wheels, dripping motor oil, strewing used needles or discharging blackwater into storm drains. They warn that many of the RVs have no documented owners, no insurance, no vehicle registration and no license plates.
Local TV news stations fill their nightly broadcasts with reports of “abandoned” or “zombie” RVs — terms that suggest the people inside don’t count or are somehow unnatural.
Portland City Hall has seen enough and is deploying a new policy — one that allows cops to immediately remove people from any RV deemed a hazard to public safety or health, while tow trucks drag the vehicle away. Since the beginning of May, 25 RVs have been towed away. The city isn’t sure how many people lived inside.
“One of our jobs is to make sure our city is a livable place,” says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees transportation. “The RV issue is acute. Some neighborhoods are overwhelmed.”
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It may seem counterproductive for a city in a housing crisis to be tossing people back out on the streets. But neighbors and police have found motor homes more unnerving than houseless people sleeping outdoors.
What RV dwellers most cherish about their motor homes is the same thing that most bugs cops and homeowners: Nobody can see what’s going on inside.
So we went in. For the past two weeks, WW has interviewed more than a dozen people living in RVs on the streets of Portland — especially on the Strip. In the following pages, the residents share stories and photos from a hidden world.
Last week, Sheila Fitch stood in lavender-colored Disney pajama pants in front of her 1989 Country Camper, watching her neighbor sweep broken glass and screws out of the street — all that remained after the city towed a derelict RV from the Strip earlier that morning.
That burned-out shell of an RV was among as many as 11 motor homes allegedly parked and left behind on Portland streets this spring by a man named John Maher. He now faces misdemeanor criminal charges for vehicle abandonment.
Fitch says she turned Maher in to police when he “tried to run me over” while dropping off RVs along Lombard.
“He’s messing it up for us, the normal people,” she says. Then she laughs. “What’s normal?”
Fitch, neighbors say, is the founder of the Strip: In early 2017, she was the first driver to park an RV across the street from Pier Park and its public restrooms.
Fitch, 57, hails from San Diego and Myrtle Creek, Ore. Eleven years ago, she was an office manager making $800 a week. “In 2006, I kind of went woooo,” says Fitch, fluttering her hand in a downward direction. “I had a stroke, because I’m a workaholic.”
She now survives on Social Security disability payments and does a little “canning” — collecting cans and bottles — for extra cash.
Fitch got her Country Camper from a neighbor, for free.
Nearly all the people interviewed for this story say they obtained their motor homes at bargain-bin prices: free, or $400, or borrowed from a church.
RVs are a buyer’s market. When they break down, car-crushing lots charge between $1,000 and $1,500 to dismantle them. So owners sell them at low prices to avoid the expense.
One recent Craigslist ad offered a 1978 Avco motor home for $1. “Needs to go,” the Beaverton seller said, “…to be hauled out by you.”
To Fitch, the Strip seemed a safe haven: free, quiet, near a public restroom.
To enter Fitch’s Country Camper, you pass under a small plastic bag filled with water hanging over the front door “for mosquitoes.” A swarm of flies buzzes around the tiny kitchen. During the interview, Fitch’s dog, Snoopy, lies on a pile of clothing — nearly indistinguishable from other items piled and strewn about the interior.
The ashes of Fitch’s mother sit in a rectangular box with a princess sticker. A wood-burning stove lined with aluminum foil, a red kerosene lantern and an AM-FM radio-flashlight she got for her 14th birthday are objects of pride.
“These are family heirlooms,” Fitch says, becoming emotional mentioning her late mom, dad and brother. “What little stuff I have left is what God has seen fit to leave me.”
Even a cheap RV comes with expenses, starting with driving. Most if not all RVs on the Strip still run, but several couldn’t do the minimum speed on I-5. Curtis Smith, who owns one of the few RVs on the Strip with both current tags and working plumbing, says he spends $20 a day in gas for his 1999 Prowler, including $15 for his generator. The gas money adds up: Smith drives almost every day to medical appointments for himself or his girlfriend, who has cancer.
Finding a place to park it was harder. “I didn’t think I wouldn’t be able to get into an RV park,” Smith says. “That was the last thing I expected. If I want to get into an RV park, I’m going to have to go at least 20 miles.”
Most local RV parks have a rule that motor homes can’t be more than 10 years old. Even if a vehicle qualifies, the typical monthly rent for an RV space is around $650.
Residents of the Strip do take some responsibility for their neighborhood, sweeping the sidewalk and hauling away garbage. “I want the people [nearby] to feel comfortable and to know that we don’t mean any harm and we’re just trying to survive,” says Claudio.
But some of these RVs have debris piled next to them on the sidewalk: Volvo car doors, shopping carts. The occasional clothing line is attached to a tree on a grassy area nearby.
Hygiene is a challenge without water or sewer. Claudio showers at a nearby community center; others use homes of friends or family.
Curtis Smith pays $10 to empty the Prowler’s septic tank at Jantzen Beach. Claudio says he puts his waste in a bucket, loads it into the trunk of his Honda (which he parks behind his RV) and drives it to a nearby garbage bin.
Across the city, in the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Lents, Jennifer Young tracks the movement of every RV that pulls onto the streets.
A July 7 visit to Lents Park found only one RV, but Young says Lents Park and the former campus of Marshall High School were home to as many as 20 RVs — until the city increased towing in recent months.
Young and other East Portland residents who have formed neighborhood watch groups say their core issue is equity: The clusters of RVs allowed to gather in Lents would never be allowed in wealthier areas, they argue.
“I document every RV that’s in Lents,” says Young, a therapist and homeowner in her 40s. “I’m not this horrible lady trying to chase RVs out of my neighborhood. I make an effort to understand what’s going on. Unfortunately, in Lents, we don’t have a lot of innocent people living in RVs.”
Randy Teig of the Portland Police Bureau agrees. The East Precinct sergeant leads a team that responds to calls in a long swath of Southeast and Northeast Portland, between Cesar E. Chavez Boulevard and the city’s eastern border with Gresham.
Teig says the criminal behavior he sees in RVs isn’t a result of housing shortages — it’s just crime, and would be intolerable if it occurred in any dwelling.
“Sometimes it’s a straight-up crime issue and they just don’t have a house,” Teig says. “When you really start peeling back the bark, you start realizing that some of these people got to go to jail.”
Last October, after months of complaints from Young, police and Multnomah County Animal Services entered an aging Itasca motor home on Southeast 86th Avenue and found two German shepherds named Sassy and Phoenix living in trash and their own feces and blood, with no food. Four days later, James Andrew Fisher, the RV’s owner, pleaded guilty to methamphetamine possession.
“They were making some sort of drugs in there, and the dogs were guarding that,” Young says. “They basically started eating each other. It was so horrible. I fought for months to have them do something.”
Meanwhile, several people told WW stories of increasing vigilantism against people living in RVs. It can be something as innocuous as honking, which people on the Strip say happens each morning, as organized as a social media group, or as frightening as threats with a baseball bat.
Fawn Haskins-Mack, a Grand Ronde tribe member who lives on the Strip, says she recently parked her Shasta at a 7-Eleven on Lombard when someone turned on her propane tank. The RV filled with gas, and she and her boyfriend, James Smith, ran outside. The couple haven’t filled the tank since.
“That’s what I mean by hate — it’s scary,” Haskins-Mack says. “This is dangerous, living like this.”
In May, Portland police and city transportation officials seized their first RV under a new policy called the Community Caretaking Tow Program. In its first 45 days of operation, police have used the program to inspect 46 RVs, towing 25.
The program, pioneered by Teig and first reported last week by The Portland Mercury, gives the city authority to seize RVs it deems hazardous — including occupied ones.
It allows police or transportation officials to order an immediate tow of an RV creating “dangerous conditions”: fire hazards, biohazards like used syringes or discharged wastewater, or debris.
In those cases, police are authorized to remove people living inside, tow the vehicle to an impound lot, and keep it for 30 days. If no one claims it, the city will pay to dismantle it.
The city reserves shelter beds for the people displaced, and police are supposed to call Multnomah County to assist with services, such as a trip to detox. (A county spokesman describes the arrangement as informal at best.)
For people living in RVs, displacement is devastating.
Pamela Pilcher had her 1988 Aljo RV trailer towed by the city in March while she and her husband, Jason, were in another part of the city where Pilcher was recuperating from surgery for kidney stones. Since then, they’ve been sleeping in their pickup truck and couch surfing.
She misses the RV. “It was nice, it felt like your own space,” she recalls. “You had a warm spot, or semi-warm — at least you had a spot.”
She tried to get her possessions back, she says, including the only photos she has of her mother and grandmother. But the city demands that she pay $990 in fines first. The couple’s total monthly income is $1,100, from their combined Social Security disability payments.
“My whole life is in there,” she said, her voice trembling. “It’s overwhelming. I just don’t know how you do it. They don’t have any option for us.”
Saltzman, the transportation commissioner, says he sympathizes with people who are pushed back on the streets. “We don’t consider every RV that’s occupied to be a danger,” he says. “People need a place to live. But when there’s a public health hazard — as in, needles or human waste — there has to be some balance between livability and people having a place to stay.”
He says the number of RVs targeted by the city program is small — no more than 90 motor homes citywide that pose health and safety hazards. (Teig estimates the number is much larger: 100 RVs in East Portland alone.)
Last week, on the Strip, city workers installed “No Parking” signs on telephone poles along the sidewalk. A few RVs took off.
Not Curtis Smith.
“They’re just pushing people farther and farther out,” he says. “I’ve moved everywhere. I did everything I possibly could do. I ain’t moving.”
This article was first published in Willamette Week.