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Gresham not backing down from camping ban

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - David Stokoe waits outside St. Henry Catholic Church in Gresham before the opening of its day shelter Tuesday. The church also serves meals to the homeless and low-income people. While Stokoe understands Greshams move to limit camping in nearby Gresham Woods, he feels marginalized by the effort. Fence or no fence, the city of Gresham says it will aggressively pursue homeless campers and trespassers destroying parts of the 60-acre Gresham Woods along the Springwater Trail.

While the $12,000 orange plastic fence — despite being torn down during the weekend — is credited with stopping campers, it’s apparently just pushing the homeless east or west to other areas of the trail.

The 7,000-foot fence and threat of a $2,500 fine for camping in the woods has put a spotlight on the larger issue of a city’s homeless population with no place to go. Multnomah County estimates there were 305 homeless in Gresham this winter, at least half of those families in shelters.

The fence went up last week after complaints from residents along the trail that homeless campers were threatening them. The city also said campers were destroying $350,000 worth of restoration work along Johnson Creek. The fence runs from Southwest Pleasantview Drive to Towle Avenue.

The city also invoked an emergency clause that allows it to close the woods to public use. The city is offering a $500 reward for tips leading to an arrest of anyone damaging the fence.

“Nothing in the city code mandates that a fence must be in place to close a park or open space or to enforce the closure,” said Elizabeth Coffey, a spokeswoman for the city. “Under guidance from our city attorney’s office, we chose to provide a fence as a barrier to avoid residents from unintentionally violating the closure.”

Coffey said people should think of the fence as a speed limit sign. If the sign is damaged or knocked down, she said, that doesn’t meant that the speed limit is not enforced.

Terry Schumway, head of the Southwest Neighborhood Coalition’s safety committee, said a few homeless people who were known to be threatening to residents on the trail have moved on.

But, Schumway said, when she walked the trail farther west she noticed that many new camps have set up at Southeast 174th Avenue — just beyond the limits of the fence.

Although other neighborhood groups have asked Gresham to protect open space from campers, the city says it has no plans to extend the fence beyond Gresham Woods.

“The outcome we expected was to get them out of here and to quit

destroying this trail — they’re destroying Johnson Creek and that whole area,” Schumway said. “The outcome we would like is to have some kind of mental health facility that they could be taken to or some kind of help and I don’t know when that is going to happen. We just can’t leave this group (of homeless people) like this.”

Multnomah County has given the city of Gresham $130,000 for homelessness relief. The city plans to hire homeless individuals to work on Gresham’s trails to keep them keep clean. It also plans to hire a social worker to be the point of contact for the homeless in the city. That person will also work with local service providers to coordinate efforts.

“Tackling this complex societal issue with compassionate and yet, realistic, solutions is no small task, particularly with limited funds,” Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis said in a statement Wednesday. “We need to continue to work together as a region to address this issue — the city can’t solve it alone.”

Homeless react

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Michael Gonzalez is living in Vancouver but came to Main City Park on Tuesday to visit friends. He has lived along the Springwater Trail and says the homeless population consists of both kindhearted and violent people. Michael Gonzalez, an animated 26-year-old taking shelter from the rain in Main City Park on Tuesday, lived on the Springwater Trail for about six months last year after being kicked out of his home for anger issues. He’s currently living with his girlfriend — who he met on the trail — at her father’s house in Vancouver. He said he got a ride to Gresham Tuesday to shop and see friends.

He described the people he met on Springwater as “kind hearted” and “very humble,” but said some certainly were violent, including himself.

In 2013 he went to jail for stealing a car and leading police on a chase. His criminal record has made it hard for him to find a job or a place to live.

“This is the worst time in my life,” Gonzalez said. “I prefer to be indoors. I’m a classy bum. But with needing first and last month rent, it’s not easy to get inside.”

Mary Macquire, wearing an oversized camouflage jacket and pajama pants covered in peppermint candies, said she’s been homeless for 13 years. She has trouble keeping a job because of an anxiety disorder and has camped “up and down” the trail. She’s also become something of a fairy godmother to others.

On Tuesday, volunteers at St. Henry Catholic Church on Northwest First Street cook and serve dinner to homeless or low-income individuals while the church serves as a day shelter from 1-6:30 p.m. There, Macquire greets everyone by name, including the volunteers.

Macquire condemned the destruction in Gresham Woods and is glad the city stepped in to protect the land. But she says most homeless people simply have no place to go.

She encourages the homeless to clean up after themselves, even bringing trash bags into the woods to help in that effort.

“On the trail are slums of people who don’t want to pick up things,” said Macquire. “They are actually good people, but they’re drug addicts.”

However, the fence — she called it “dumb” — is not a solution.

“The fence is not the right answer because people are damaging it,” Macquire said. “We have to be able to have a place to go.”

David Stokoe, another homeless man, was equally conflicted.

“It’s one more brick in a wall that we’ve seen against homelessness in Gresham,” Stokoe said. “But I kind of understand it at the same time.”

Coffey said the city did not consult with outside agencies, including many that work with the homeless on a regular basis. Instead, it came up with the fence and exclusion plan within the city attorney’s office, police and department of environmental services.

Steve Kimes, who runs a day shelter at Anawim Christian Community, 19626 N.E. Glisan St., said the city could have taken a different route.

“I’m really disappointed in the city that they didn’t first speak with homeless folks to see if they could do a cleanup themselves,” Kimes said. “If they would have provided porta potties and garbage bags and trash pickup, the homeless guys could have done it themselves.”

Bill and Mary Hay have volunteered in the St. Henry kitchen for more than five years despite backlash from residents who say the services draw the homeless into Gresham.

“We understand the plight of the residents and the environmental factors,” said Bill Hay. “There’s no real definitive solution. I’m sorry that we’ve gotten to this.”

“I love what I do, but I understand that there are people feeling the effects of what I do,” Mary Hay said of feeding the homeless.

Joint effort?

Gresham’s move to fence off the 60 acres is in contrast to a recent city of Portland decision to make camping legal.

But Portland’s rules limit camping to sleeping bags and tarps on sidewalks between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Shannon Singleton, executive director of JOIN, an organization that tries to connect the homeless to housing and jobs, said different rules between Portland and Gresham could exacerbate the problem.

“It creates confusion because they don’t know where to go or where it’s safe for them to sleep,” Singleton said.

Although Gresham is trying to expand their partnership with JOIN, the city did not contact the organization about the fence.

“Our challenge is, we understand the environmental impact and we want people to have a low-impact,” Singleton said, “but if we’re not offering people places to go, I’m not sure why we’re making it impossible for them to sleep everywhere.”

Before the fence went up there was no police patrol other than an officer assigned to that district, said Capt. Claudio Grandjean.

Police wouldn’t say this week if they have a plan or if they will establish regular patrols along the Springwater Trail.

Whatever they do, Grandjean said, it’s likely that information would not be made public so vandals or trespassers wouldn’t know it either.

“We’re taking some time to look at different options, but (we did not want to) leave the fence on the ground while we’re evaluating things,” Coffey said.

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