Hidden toll of homeless crisis: Portland’s prized natural areas


HomeHome / News / Hidden toll of homeless crisis: Portland’s prized natural areas

Jun 03, 2023

Hidden toll of homeless crisis: Portland’s prized natural areas

A shopping cart and other debris rest in an overflow channel that connects to Johnson Creek at the West Lents Floodplain in outer Southeast Portland. More than 50 people have camped in the floodplain

A shopping cart and other debris rest in an overflow channel that connects to Johnson Creek at the West Lents Floodplain in outer Southeast Portland. More than 50 people have camped in the floodplain over the past two years. This photo was taken on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.Dave Killen / The Oregonian

On a scorching July morning, Keith Moen checked the steel barrier gate at the West Lents Floodplain, a natural area just off the Springwater Corridor Trail in outer Southeast Portland.

It was intact, not like the last time when the security manager for Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services found someone had cut through a part of the locking mechanism with an angle grinder.

Still, Moen noted a steel bollard missing at the entrance to the Springwater trail, meaning cars could again illegally drive onto the paved path and into the natural area.

As he inspected the floodplain, Moen walked past a shopping cart brimming with garbage and over a metal bridge spanning trash-strewn Johnson Creek. He veered into the brush to speak with people camping under trees and tarps. The city had removed multiple encampments, cars and RVs from the property’s meadows and woods over the past year, but the campers persistently returned.

Moen’s job didn’t exist two years ago.

But since the advent of the pandemic, the bureau’s land managers and environmental advocates have sounded an alarm about the escalating human-caused degradation of the city’s wildlife habitat zones, floodplains, rivers and streams, wetlands and wildfire hazard zones and are seeking ways to protect them.

Bureau of Environmental Services security manager Keith Moen walks away from an encampment near Johnson Creek at the West Lents Floodplain site. Moen patrolled the site on Wednesday, July 5, 2023, as part of the rounds he makes of the bureau's properties, many of which have seen significant damage from homeless encampments. Dave Killen / The Oregonian

The sites include places Portlanders walk, bike and paddle, such as the Foster Floodplain Natural Area, Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, the Columbia Slough and the Springwater Corridor, the scenic paved path that runs from Southeast Portland to Boring. Among them are lesser-known spots key to improving climate resilience and livability across the city, such as the Brookside Wetland in Southeast Portland.

READ: East Portland sites hardest hit by homeless camps

Portland has long been considered a national leader in innovative environmental restoration. Before the pandemic, it had invested millions of dollars to develop, rehabilitate and maintain natural areas, cementing its reputation as a city of green spaces with extensive access to nature.

In parts of Portland, those ambitions have stalled as leaders try to get a handle on the mounting homeless crisis.

Policies meant to address homelessness have exacerbated the damage in natural areas. Those include prioritizing the city core for cleanup while paying far less heed to deterioration at more remote locations and conducting thousands of sweeps that – in tandem with a dearth of shelter beds, transitional and affordable housing – push people into out-of-sight places.

The city has offered few viable ways for those living outdoors to regularly dispose of their trash and human waste.

In turn, the encampments and their detritus have kept people away from nature, especially in neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of low-income residents, people of color, immigrants and refugees, whose use of natural areas already tends to be limited.

LISTEN: Who should clean up glut of debris from homeless camps in the Willamette River? Beat Check Podcast

“The ecological damage from the camping is tremendous – decades of work, millions and millions of public dollars wasted,” said Bob Sallinger, the former executive director of Portland Audubon and now urban conservation director for the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper.

“Trees have been cut down, vegetation has been trampled, water quality has been degraded,” Sallinger said. “The amount of garbage, including hazardous waste, on these natural sites is remarkable.”

Trash litters the ground at the Brookside Wetland, the site of a major flood mitigation project in outer Southeast Portland. Dozens of people in tents, RVs and makeshift structures camped throughout the site, leaving denuded soil, damaged trees and undergrowth and trash.Bureau of Environmental Services


People experiencing homelessness have camped in Portland’s natural areas for decades. But from the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, city land managers said they have seen a sharp increase in the number and size of encampments in protected wooded properties and along waterways.

Most of the damaged sites are in north and outer east Portland, the land managers said.

Many of the spots fall under special city zoning and are considered “critical green infrastructure,” said Ken Finney, a supervisor with the Bureau of Environmental Services who oversees the natural areas restoration program. The bureau also operates and maintains the city’s wastewater and stormwater systems.

“We don’t see them as just empty open spaces, but as fully functioning, complex systems,” Finney said. “They provide specific ecosystem services to our city, including reducing flooding, managing stormwater and improving water quality. They also improve the air we breathe, protect us from extreme heat and sequester carbon. They help us fulfill our climate goals.”

The Bureau of Environmental Services manages more than 100 undeveloped natural areas covering 800 acres and Portland Parks & Recreation manages 3,000 acres of undeveloped land at around 95 sites (not including Forest Park).

On Monday, July 10, 2023, Sharon Hutchison sits in the garden she's built on the Columbia Slough in Northeast Portland as her dogs Max (center) and Ms. Charlie wait nearby. For Hutchison, whose home is a van, living in a more isolated area by the slough offers relative safety and a reprieve from constant city sweeps and allows her contact with nature. "There's so much ugly out there, it's so nice to come down here and just sit," Hutchison said of her garden oasis.Dave Killen / The Oregonian

Finney said the city’s ecologists feel deeply for the campers who have to survive in the wild and have nowhere to go. More than 6,000 people are experiencing homelessness in Multnomah County, according to this year’s count, but there are only about 2,000 shelter beds and on average, about 90% are typically filled. While some homeless people may refuse shelter, many have said the city hasn’t offered them a safe place to stay though they desperately want one.

“We understand camping in natural areas is a symptom of a larger issue. They need a place to live and there just aren’t enough housing options for everyone,” Finney said.

But widespread camping damages natural sites and can be outright dangerous, he said. During the wet season, when water levels rise rapidly on Johnson Creek or the Willamette River, for instance, tents can flood in a matter of hours.

Rising water on the Willamette River this spring submerged the tent, personal items and trash belonging to people living on the river bank in east Portland. Until recently, there have been few attempts from local and state governments to protect and clean up the river.

Last year, Moen, the security manager, found a woman and her adult son camping in the stone-lined channel that splits from Johnson Creek on the West Lents Floodplain. The channel was dry, but would soon fill with rushing water.

Similarly, campers have had to be rescued from an island at the Brookside Wetland and evacuated from the banks of the Willamette River after their tents and belongings became inundated overnight.

During the dry season, many of the sites turn into fire hazard zones, where a catastrophic blaze could spread swiftly and trap campers. City staff and park rangers must visit the natural areas year-round to warn people of impending rising waters or urge them not to light fires.


On many of the properties, restoration projects have ground to a near-halt as the encampments have made it unsafe for crews to work.

Staffers have been threatened and told to leave by some campers, have heard gunshots and have run into people high on fentanyl and other drugs, said Finney and Rachel Felice, city nature manager with Portland Parks & Recreation.

At the West Lents site, where city ecologists have worked for over four years to design a floodplain restoration project, about 50 campers have left denuded, compacted soil; piles of trash, needles and human waste; deep tracks carved by cars and RVs driving into the meadows; and a patchwork of informal “social trails.”

Left: An encampment is visible behind a sign prohibiting camping at the West Lents Floodplain, a natural area near Johnson Creek in Southeast Portland, on Wednesday, July 5, 2023. Right: Bureau of Environmental Services security manager Keith Moen speaks to residents of an encampment at the West Lents site. Dave Killen / The Oregonian

The project is part of a two-decade strategy to restore the Johnson Creek watershed and reduce the inundation of homes and businesses on Foster Road and elsewhere along the creek. It also will create habitat for imperiled trout and steelhead.

Similar damage – which, in many cases, will take decades to repair – has marred countless other natural areas in the city. Neither Environmental Services nor Parks & Recreation have analyzed the percentage of affected acres, land managers said, because the task would be challenging given the array of protected properties and because the damage is recurring.

It has been heart-breaking to watch for the restoration ecologists, some of whom have dedicated their entire careers to rehabilitating the sites and have seen their work undone in a matter of months or even days, Felice said.

“When somebody cuts a 30-year-old tree down, you can plant it tomorrow, but you’ll have to wait 30 years to get the same benefits that you were getting before it was cut,” she said.

Dozens of people in tents, RVs and makeshift structures camped throughout the Brookside Wetland, a natural area in outer Southeast Portland, leaving denuded soil, broken trees and damaged undergrowth. On right: Campers who drove into the site in cars and RVs left deep rutted tracks where plants and trees once grew. The city removed the encampments in March, but ecologists with the Bureau of Environmental Services say undoing the damage will take years. Bureau of Environmental Services


The Bureau of Environmental Services in 2021 hired Moen and other contract security staff to patrol natural areas.

In addition to Moen’s $103,397 salary, the bureau spent more than $1 million this past fiscal year and has budgeted $2.3 million for security contracts for the current year. Before the pandemic, the bureau typically spent $100,000 on security costs.

The contractors protect bureau employees as well as the natural areas, wastewater treatment plants and pump stations. The figures don’t include money spent on gates, rails or boulders because the bureau hasn’t analyzed those costs.

Portland Parks & Recreation also has a security manager and has installed gates, boulders and other barriers on its natural areas, but the bureau didn’t provide a breakdown of those costs.

Bureau of Environmental Services security manager Keith Moen waves to residents of a camp on Wednesday, July 5, 2023 at the West Lents Floodplain, a natural area near Johnson Creek in Southeast Portland. The bureau hired Moen two years ago due to increased damage to natural areas, essential infrastructure and security risks to city restoration staff. Dave Killen / The Oregonian

Security workers now inspect the natural areas before staff go out to do restoration work. Both bureaus also have instituted a buddy system, requiring staff to work in groups or be accompanied by security guards.

Land managers have scrambled to restrict access to the natural areas to prevent further damage – particularly to thwart vehicle access, typically the cause of the worst environmental damage.

Moen has reported the most troublesome encampments to the city’s Impact Reduction Program, which cleans and removes encampments citywide, but he said response time has lagged significantly on many of the sites. The bureaus don’t conduct sweeps, but do pay into the Impact Reduction Program out of their budgets.

At the West Lents site, the Bureau of Environmental Services paid $33,000 to manufacture and install three metal gates and dropped about 20 tons of boulders and rocks around the site’s perimeter – gathered from excavation work on other restoration sites – as additional barriers.

Concrete blocks create a barrier to prevent vehicles from being driven into the West Lents Floodplain, a natural area near Johnson Creek in Southeast Portland. The Bureau of Environmental Services paid $33,000 to manufacture and install three metal gates and dropped about 20 tons of boulders and blocks around the site’s perimeter. Similar security measures are being taken at countless natural areas across the city.Dave Killen / The Oregonian

The security measures have, for the most part, kept cars out of the West Lents site and other areas, said Moen, but campers keep coming back.

Sandy Black, a 65-year-old neighbor walking her pug Stormy, ran into Moen on the day he was patrolling the West Lents Floodplain. The retiree, whose home backs into the Springwater Trail just steps from the natural area, gushed about the geese, baby ducks, deer and skunks she loves to observe on her walks.

She also lamented that some of the campers deal drugs, leave behind mounds of garbage, steal from her shed and threaten her and other neighbors with knives and guns. In June, she said, someone set seven grocery carts on fire on the Springwater next to the floodplain, igniting a tree a few hundred feet from her porch.

“It’s just so frustrating because my dog has to go for a walk every day. I usually have pepper spray on me because I’ve been threatened. And it’s like, come on, I just walk on this damn trail for my dog and my health,” she said. “To see what it is now, it just breaks my heart.”

Land managers feel the same frustration, said Finney with the Bureau of Environmental Services. While most of the campers appear to be merely trying to survive and are not involved in chop shops, violence or theft, he said, criminals take advantage of the crisis, concealing their activities on some of the wooded sites.


Officials in the mayor’s office acknowledge the city has done little since the pandemic to safeguard natural areas – a policy decision they said was driven by the public COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and a focus on reinvigorating downtown Portland.

The city followed guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stop removing homeless encampments to allow people experiencing homelessness to “shelter in place,” said Skyler Brocker-Knapp, a senior policy adviser in the mayor’s office.

The policy had the opposite effect: Within months, existing encampments ballooned and at least three dozen large new camps sprung up. Many of the campers didn’t adhere to social distancing guidelines, officials conceded.

But the city continued to rely on the policy at least for another year.

Initially, city leaders tried to assist the growing numbers in a humane way, offering portable toilets and dumpsters. But as the squalor of encampments became increasingly visible and intense, drawing the ire of business owners and residents, Portland did a turnabout, adopting aggressive camp removal measures.

READ: Why not supply dumpsters and toilets?

The city resumed sweeps in 2021, albeit on a smaller scale, focusing on clearing homeless campers from sidewalks in Old Town and the Central Eastside.

Portland also contracted with SOLVE, the volunteer organization best known for cleaning up Oregon’s beaches, and with the Ground Score Association, an initiative of the nonprofit Trash for Peace, to do cleanups not linked to sweeps. Those efforts were limited in scope and mostly focused on downtown and city neighborhoods.

Encampments in forested natural areas, which garnered few angry calls from the public, were allowed to carry on as they had during the height of the pandemic – including in many areas the city had previously identified for protection.

The mayor’s office was aware encampments were ballooning out of control – land managers had kept the Impact Reduction team up-to-date – but the city needed to address more pressing problems, Brocker-Knapp said.

City contractors removed a makeshift structure and multiple tent encampments from the Brookside Wetland, the site of a major flood mitigation project, at the end of March 2023. Environmentalists and land managers say the homeless crisis is causing unprecedented damage to floodplains, wildlife habitat zones, rivers, streams and other natural areas.Bureau of Environmental Services

Early last year, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler banned camping in locations along high crash corridors and a few months later along safe routes to schools, prioritizing those areas for camp removals.

The natural areas’ size and topography also made cleaning them challenging, even once the city put them on the priority list, Brocker-Knapp said. Crews and tow trucks could enter only during the dry season so as not to tear up soggy ground and further damage sensitive habitats. The sheer size of the encampments meant they tied up most of the cleaning crews for several weeks, reducing response to other camps.

Another challenge: Sometimes the city lacked jurisdiction to remove encampments in natural areas because the land belongs to TriMet, Union Pacific Railroad, BNSF Railway, the Port of Portland, the Metro regional government, the Department of State Lands or a private commercial or residential owner.

That’s especially the case for natural sites bordering the Springwater Corridor and the banks along the Columbia Slough, the channels in north and northeast Portland abutted by wetlands, floodplains and forests interspersed with developed industrial properties.

It wasn’t until last summer and fall that Portland increased the size of its contract crews and dramatically ramped up sweeps citywide. The strategy included a new contract with COR (formerly City of Roses Disposal and Recycling), a private waste company, to clean up and remove encampments in natural areas.

On a morning in May, several COR crews in pickups worked their way down the Springwater Corridor between the Ross Island Bridge and Oaks Amusement Park, cleaning up after camps that had been recently removed or abandoned on the Willamette River’s east bank. Each crew of two included a crisis intervention worker who could offer resources to the campers.

None were in sight. Most of the encampments were under water and the cleaning crews donned waders. Tarps, trash bags, bottles, bike wheels, crates and pieces of plastic large and small floated half-submerged at the shore.


Homeless advocates have repeatedly urged City Hall and the public not to demonize people living outdoors for the environmental damage they cause.

Many have nowhere else to go, said Amanda Perrault, a social worker and program coordinator with SOLVE, the volunteer organization that now has cleanup contracts with the city.

“Yes, there are undeniable, obvious and tangible environmental impacts of encampments,” Perrault said. “But I don’t blame people for doing what they need to do to survive. I don’t think we can expect them to be able to manage their trash disposal when they’re struggling to find a place to live.”

Perrault and others said the sweeps are leading to further damage to natural areas.

Because they constantly force people from one place to another, they effectively drive weary campers into wilder sites where they hope to avoid the sweeps. There, they not only trample sensitive habitats, but also have no access to public restrooms, social services, outreach workers or cleanup crews.

Debris is entangled with logs and branches in Johnson Creek in southeast Portland on Wednesday, July 5, 2023.Dave Killen / The Oregonian

Sweeps also create an incredible amount of trash and lead to people losing valuable possessions and documents, Perrault said. Most campers, who get a 72-hour notice of a camp removal, have nowhere to store their belongings.

What’s more, she said, constantly removing campers breaks up homeless communities and upends rules that many have set to keep their areas tidy. It traumatizes campers, she said, making them despondent and less motivated to keep their encampments clean – since it’s just a matter of time until they’re forced to move again.


For now, people continue to return to natural areas soon after their camps are removed, even if in somewhat smaller numbers, so restoration crews still cannot do their work.

“I’m afraid we’re in a holding pattern,” Finney said. “We don’t feel comfortable making an investment and trying to mitigate some of the impacts because they’re recurring again and again. It makes no sense for us to start reducing the soil compaction or putting plants in the ground knowing that the site is going to get impacted again.”

Brocker-Knapp said the city is working as fast as possible on making various housing options available to people who are camping outdoors, including a series of city-regulated tiny home sites. But their opening has been delayed. The first mega site, with 140 tiny homes and spaces for tents, is slated to open at the end of this month, but it’s unclear when others may open.

Homeless advocates also worry about the effects of Portland’s daytime camping ordinance, which went into effect this month. It prohibits people from camping on public land during daytime hours. While it allows those who lack access to shelter to camp at night, it requires them to dismantle their campsites during the day.

The ban could shift even more people to remote natural areas as they try to hide and avoid the cumbersome rules, said Barbra “Barbie” Weber, who moved into a tiny home village after camping in natural areas. Weber co-founded Ground Score Association to pay people experiencing homelessness to provide tent-side garbage pickup.

Barbra 'Barbie' Weber co-founded the Ground Score Association, which is an initiative of the nonprofit Trash for Peace. Dave Killen / The Oregonian

“When the city banned camping in the past, we moved out to the woods. We were like, we can’t be here so we’re going to go there,” she said of her own past experience.

The new ban also prohibits camping at all times within 250 feet of natural areas that have a variety of environmental zoning protections, including flood hazard areas. It’s unclear how the city will enforce that, given the thousands of natural acres across Portland. City officials said they won’t enforce the ban until later this fall and will spend the summer educating those living outdoors about the new rules.

In the meantime, the city’s ecologists are trying to figure out how to best restore the damaged areas, including hardened soil with syringes and feces baked into it and damaged trees that may die a slow death.

This past fiscal year, Portland Parks & Recreation spent $150,000 on micro-trash removal to extract innumerable small pieces of trash embedded in the ground left behind by encampments.

“When we’re charged with restoring an impacted area, we can’t start where we would if we had just acquired an acre of upland forest or woodland,” said Felice, the bureau’s city nature manager. “Because obviously, we don’t want our staff digging in this.”

Debris from a homeless encampment litters the soil at the Oaks Crossing Natural Area. Gosia Wozniacka/The Oregonian/OregonLive

In most cases, that restoration will take years and will need significant community involvement to thrive – but the city shouldn’t give up on its green legacy, said Sallinger, the Willamette Riverkeeper official.

“We need to have a holistic vision that includes affordable housing, sustainable transportation, climate strategies, racial justice and environmental protection,” he said. “That’s what a complete community looks like.”

– Gosia Wozniacka; [email protected]; @gosiawozniacka

Our journalism needs your support. Please become a subscriber today at OregonLive.com/subscribe/

If you purchase a product or register for an account through one of the links on our site, we may receive compensation. By browsing this site, we may share your information with our social media partners in accordance with our Privacy Policy.