Tigard police clear unwanted homeless camp off 72nd Avenue

by: JAIME VALDEZ - Residents of a homeless camp near Tigard Cinemas survey their campsite. Tigard Police have cleared out the camp and will spend the next several days throwing away couches, dressers, doors, insulation and other items left behind.It’s possible that a homeless camp on 72nd Avenue had been there for months or even years before it was discovered.

Tucked inside a wooded area across from the Tigard Cinemas, it looks like little more than a worn patch of dirt from the road. But inside, it’s clear people had been working on it for a long, long time.

“You don’t get this kind of compacted dirt without being here for awhile,” Tigard Assistant Police Chief Jim de Sully said Tuesday, surveying the barren area where one structure had stood.

Tarps and blankets made a make-shift shelter in one area of the camp. Other structures were more sophisticated, with doors, irrigation ditches and logs hammered into the ground to provide a basic foundation for pallet floors.

But everywhere you look, there was garbage.

Plastic bags, chairs, buckets and food wrappers littered the area and were heaped in piles.

A cabinet donated from a nearby Salvation Army stood overturned in one corner. A child’s toy cart rested on the frozen ground.

Tigard police have spent the better part of this week cleaning out the homeless camp after the property owner learned of its existence and asked police to tear it down.

It’s the largest camp police have shut down in recent memory, and police say it highlights an issue that officers have been working to address for years: A growing number of transients with fewer and fewer places to sleep.

Increase in crime

Being homeless isn’t against the law, de Sully said, but the camp was becoming a problem in the area with increased crime and environmental concerns.

Garbage and human fecal matter were found in a nearby creek.

There was so much trash on site that by Tuesday morning, work crews had already filled one of three 24-foot-long, 8-1/2-foot-tall Dumpsters to the brim and had made a good start on a second one.

“They are shoving it down with a backhoe,” said Tigard Officer Brian Orth.

The city has seen large camps before, Orth said, but never one of this scale.

“This is a little out of the ordinary, just from the size and filth of it,” Orth said. “There was (garbage) everywhere.”

The camp was built on private property without permission. Because it was so secluded, it was not discovered until November when police arrested a man staying at the camp who was believed to have stolen several cars in the Tigard area.

That led Orth to investigate the camp a bit further, he said.

“I went out there, and the first person I met had a warrant out for their arrest, so I took them to jail,” he said. “I came back the next day, and there was another person who had a warrant.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Work crews haul bags of debris from the campsite to dumpsters. Police say the property owner Oregon Education Association did not realize the camp was there until police notified them, then asked police to remove it. It will likely take another few days to clear out the rest of the debris, police estimate. It’s estimated that 12 to 15 people stayed at the camp in separate campsites spread out across the large wooded area.

“It just keeps going and going,” Orth said, surveying the cleanup. “When you see the magnitude of it, it’s like, ‘Woah.’”

Orth spoke with the camp residents for two weeks before shutting down the camp on Monday, he said.

Lack of services

Transients are drawn to Tigard for the same reason many businesses are, de Sully said: It’s close to everything.

“A lot of homeless folks that I’ve talked with say they don’t want to live downtown because of the violence there, and they are not interested in living in Hillsboro (where there are more county services), but we are in-between,” de Sully said. “It is a straight shot down 99W right into downtown, they can go get easy access to services downtown and pop back over here and branch off in different directions.”

De Sully said working to find places for people to stay can be a challenge.

“There is a lack of government services,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of community outreach on this, but it’s a central hub.”

Tigard fairs better than other cities in the county when it comes to helping the homeless. St. Anthony Catholic Church and Calvin Presbyterian Church offer a warm place to sleep on nights when the weather drops below freezing, and The Good Neighbor Center on Southwest Greenburg Road offers rooms for families who find themselves without a place to live.

But de Sully said that, more and more, police are asked to deal with issues related to homelessness.

“As Tigard has grown, development filled in these pockets where these folks once lived,” he said. “Ten or 15 years ago, you didn’t get quite the number of complaints you get now because there were more pockets, and they could stay there. As we push out this way, they are accessing new neighborhoods and pathways to get there.”

Police have little choice

Snow still sprinkled the ground as police cleared the area, and the frozen ground crunched with each step as work crews hefted bags of debris back to waiting Dumpsters.

Orth said December was an unfortunate time of year to remove the camp, but said the city had little choice in the matter.

“That is the downside,” he said. “We didn’t want to do it, but they wait for you to come, and what is the excuse for it next week? Sometimes you just have to do it.”

Orth, an officer with the city for six years, said he provided residents with resources about nearby warming shelters and worked with members of the Washington County Housing Authority to find housing for some of the residents.

“They were provided the information,” de Sully said. “It’s their choice to make a decision about where they want to go.”

Most of the city’s homeless found themselves on the street through circumstances outside of their control, Orth said.

He said he knew each of the camp residents through interactions in the past few years, and most of them are decent, law-abiding citizens.

“I know all of them, we’re on a first-name basis,” Orth said.

One woman who had been living at the camp said she became homeless about a year earlier.

“I am 58, and I was kicked out of my apartment because of mold,” she said as she loaded a shopping cart with belongings to take with her.

The woman said she was evicted from her home a year earlier and has been living in the camp with her 18-year-old dog and has no place to go now that the camp has been shut down.

“Last night was the first night of sleeping in my car for my dog,” she said. “I don’t want her to die in my car.”

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