Defending Portland’s camps

August 2, 2016

Jamie Partridge and John Monroe report from Portland, Oregon, on organizing to defend a homeless encampment that has been subjected to police harassment.

PORTLAND, OREGON, Mayor Charlie Hales postponed a police sweep of the largest houseless camp in the city after facing pressure from mounting community organizing.

The camp is located along the Springwater Corridor, a public wildlife area in eastern Portland, and is made up of clusters of smaller camps. With as many as 500 people living together as economic refugees of the ongoing neoliberal crisis, defense of the camp is of critical importance.

Both houseless campers and housed community members stepped forward to stand their ground and resist the police sweeps. A coalition of activist groups, other homeless camps, faith groups and social services stepped forward to organize for civil disobedience.

At the center of this coalition is Portland Tenants United (PTU), an activist organization that organizes tenants to resist evictions and push for rent control at a citywide level.

PTU provided the organizational backbone and militant approach for coalition members to organize around. These included mutual aid groups Rose City Backpacks of Hope, Free Hot Soup, and Boots on the Ground PDX, which have been providing food and essential supplies to the homeless along the Springwater and elsewhere in Portland.

Supporters of the homeless residents of a camp gather in Portland
Supporters of the homeless residents of a camp gather in Portland (Jamie Partridge)

PTU, which organizes around the slogan "Housing as a human right," connected the defense of the camps with the struggle for tenants' rights and against evictions. PTU organizers argued that working-class people are only one rent increase or no-cause eviction away from becoming unhoused, so the struggle for safe camps is also the struggle of housed workers and other poor residents.

Their main organizational focus was to organize tenants to fight for their own housing rights. PTU also has other teams dedicated to legal and strategic research, artistic activism and changing city policy around rent control and evictions.

THIS BROAD coalition challenged the false narratives put forth by Portland's mayor. Hales has exploited the frustrations of neighbors near the camp and predictably used their anger as a justification for closing the camps. He also cited environmental concerns, given the status of the Springwater Corridor as a wildlife area.

Hales also expressed concern for the homeless people given that the area is a floodplain. This flies in the face of the inhumane treatment these same people face at the hands of local police, who spend a considerable amount of their time and budget on systematically harassing and dislocating the houseless.

Another group attempting to destroy the camp is the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), which has led a general campaign against all homeless camping. The PBA includes many of the developers that are driving historic rates of gentrification and homelessness in Portland.

Their strategy is to smear the homeless and foment hate against them, putting blame for the effects of their own shameless real estate profiteering on those who are the biggest victims of their development schemes.

One of the lies that city officials and business groups like the PBA tried to spread was that most homeless people are from out of town and come to Portland for the available social services. While some people do relocate for much-needed (and deserved) welfare services, most of the unhoused are from Portland or the surrounding smaller towns of the Willamette Valley, which has sunk into a deep economic slump as a result of the collapse of the timber industry.

At the other end of the spectrum, some social service organizations claim they're standing up for the homeless, but only in so far as it comes with an increase in their own funding. Many of these groups have been critical of the camps and their community supporters.

While we should demand increased funding for essential welfare services, this alone isn't a viable strategy for addressing a massive economic refugee crisis. People deserve to have a home, and if that's limited to a tent, then they should be allowed to form camps for mutual support and protection.

Social services should support these camps rather than join the city and business interests in criticizing the right of the unhoused to live on their own terms.

PTU and other coalition members are calling for the self-organization of tenants, and have extended that demand to unhoused campers. They are also calling for getting at the root causes of both the rent hikes and the homeless crisis: price-gouging and real estate speculation carried out by small coteries of capitalists, many of whom don't even reside in Portland.

But the current victory is only temporary--Hales has postponed the sweep until September 1 and hasn't authorized the camps. It's essential for PTU, the houseless and community allies to broaden the coalition, bringing in increased support from faith-based groups and unions that take on social justice issues.

Many of the unhoused are unemployed. They are, in the words of Karl Marx, the "reserve army of labor," a pool of people who capitalism can use to threaten workers with replacement, thereby keeping wages low and working conditions unsafe and undemocratic.

Portland workers have an interest in organizing in solidarity with the houseless against predatory real estate capitalists and their stooges. Broad solidarity and militant strategy will be essential in winning the right for this vulnerable population to survive, and for all of us to live free of the fear of becoming the next victims of mass displacement.

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