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“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”

After more than two years of frustration from people who live in houses and in tents along interstate corridors, the city of Portland will take over campsite cleanup duties from the state transportation department.

Residents were baffled over whom to contact about trash, needles and other issues they saw along multi-use paths and sidewalks that run along highways. The city had no jurisdiction to clean up homeless camps, and the Oregon Department of Transportation was hard to get ahold of and slow to act, residents complained.

Meanwhile, homeless people who wanted an out-of-the-way spot to stay for a few nights said that they were never referred to social services and often didn’t know whose cleanup schedule they would be rousted by.

Wednesday, the Portland City Council unanimously approved an agreement with the department of transportation to use the city’s One Point of Contact system to field complaints and prioritize them for cleanup on the city’s schedule.

The partnership also brings a change in the schedule. Campsites will be notified that contracted crews will come to bag garbage and move tents at least 48 hours prior.

That is a compromise between the city’s 24-hour posting minimum and the state’s 10-day notice.

Molly Harbarger

That went down just over a year ago. And it sounds lovely, doesn’t it? A decision that alleviates frustrations, providing clarity to both the people who live in houses, and the people who live in tents?

As Mayer tells it, earlier in 2019, Debbie had hip surgery and “was released to the street.” In July, Debbie, together with her husband Scott, and a number of other houseless people, were camped along a fence line in Southeast Portland, in close proximity to the Sunnyside Community House, where she found community, a couch to crash on, and coffee and warm meals.

“She was just a feisty, wonderful, strong woman,” Mayer said, “but she couldn’t walk very well for the last few months.”

In mid-July, the campsite was swept by the city-contracted Rapid Response Bio-Clean team, and, Mayer recounted, Debbie “lost all of her meds that day. She was on a series of eight or nine medications,” including antidepressants and insulin for her diabetes. “She lived her last days without them,” said Mayer, detailing the arduous lengths that houseless people have to go to in an effort to reclaim items taken during sweeps—from the last of their family photos, heirlooms and mementos, to ID and life-sustaining medications like insulin. People are not always able to retrieve the items, and in the cases when they are able to retrieve them, the items are sometimes contaminated and unusable.

The city mandates 48 hours’ notice before sweeps teams are allowed to move on the scene. A 48-hour window for moving, if you haven’t been on site for long, might not be that challenging if you’re in your 30s and don’t have any number of disabilities and health issues that are so common on the street. Of course, according to a recent study in Lancet, which encompassed multiple countries, including the US, if you’ve been on the street for any length of time, the odds are pretty good, about 53%, that you will have suffered a traumatic brain injury, whether before or in the course of being homeless. And if you’re pushing 60 like Debbie, a diabetic struggling with depression, in the midst of recovering from a hip operation, toting around the last of your worldly possessions, 48 hours might be a bit of a challenge.

But 48 hours is the mandatory window for notice before the team arrives to scour the scene. The 48-hour notice, Mayer tells me, doesn’t apply if the site has been swept within the past 10 days. So on July 24, Rapid Response returned to the site unannounced. And with no one about, they began taking down and collecting tents, whereupon they discovered the body of Debbie Ann Beaver.

Mayer said the Rapid Response team “noted her as deceased and did not attempt to revive her.”

I spoke by phone with Lance Campbell, the owner of Rapid Response Bio-Clean, who informed me that on discovering Debbie’s body, the workers, who were not trained in CPR, immediately called 911. He indicated that the police arrived on the scene within a few minutes and sealed off access to not only the tent but to the broader area, cordoning it off with police tape.

Mayer said no ambulance ever appeared on site, and at some point, Debbie’s body was placed in an unmarked white van, “and everybody just drove away. All the police disappeared at once, and nobody said anything to anybody.”

Desiree Hellegers

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