In Portland, which prides itself on being a beacon of progressive politics, the practice of using prisoner work crews is painted as a win-win – but that’s not how some see it
In many places in the US, the fraught job of clearing out a homeless encampment is given to professionals. In San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, for example, the job often falls to city employees in public works or sanitation departments, who might get paid upwards of $16 an hour.
But in Portland, which prides itself on being a paragon of progressive politics, inmates at the county jail get $1 a day – enough to buy a Butterfinger at the commissary – to do the work.
Some of the inmates sifting through or dismantling homeless dwellings were previously homeless themselves, making for a bizarre merry-go-round. The job can make it feel as if their worlds are colliding.
Jeff Nelson was homeless for 13 years and on an inmate work crew for six months. He remembers dealing with a well-tended tent in Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood – like one he might have lived in himself.
“You looked in there, and the bed was all made, and family pictures, and that was someone’s home,” he said. “And they made us take that down, and throw it in the fucking trash. And it’s like, what are you doing?”
He added: “It’s just straight up bullshit, but that’s the way the system rolls, and we have no choice [but] to roll with the system.”
That system was on full display one recent morning. Two homeless women with cigarettes in their hands watched as an armored truck with flashing lights pulled up to their campsite. A sheriff’s deputy let out five jail inmates in orange jumpsuits, who grabbed trash-picking tools and plastic bags.
“I don’t think it’s right,” said Amber, 25. “They don’t know if the inmate is going to have to see their partner, their mom, or someone they know.”
Her friend, Heather, said she recently saw a work crew member with whom she had been intimate when he was homeless. “He was across the street cleaning my campsite,” she said. The sight made her despair. “I told him that I loved him,” she said.
It is practices like this that suggest the grittier complexities beneath Portland’s international image as a beacon for neo-hippies and foodies.
Portland declared an ongoing homelessness “emergency” in 2015; new data shows the county’s homeless population has grown 10% since then. Residents living near camps have complained vocally, and often, about trash and crime.
The city of Portland pays a contractor, Pacific Patrol Services, $117,557 a year to clear homeless camps, some of which is done in conjunction with teams of inmates from the county jail. The Oregon department of transportation, or Odot, meanwhile, pays up to half a million dollars a year for jail inmates who take care of the land it owns along freeways, said spokesman Don Hamilton. These crews now focus exclusively on homeless camps, he said, whereas five years ago homelessness was only a minor focus.
In Portland, as elsewhere, the practice of using prisoner work crews is painted as a win-win for the public, with inmates being rehabilitated as public spaces are improved. The sheriff’s office stresses that inmates with certain types of sentences are eligible for reduced sentences based on their participation in crews. Yet increasingly, deploying them in this way is coming under criticism in the Pacific Northwest, where they have been engaged to clear homeless encampments in at least three cities.
Last year, the Human Rights Commission in Seattle adopted a resolution raising “serious moral issues” with the practice. “Penal labor is widely considered a vestige of slavery, and the commission is concerned with our city perpetuating the practice,” the group wrote. In response, the city stopped the practice after 23 years. The nearby city of Olympia similarly took steps away from the practice last year, partly because of hazards to inmates, such as being stuck by empty needles.
But in Portland, there has been no such shift. Hamilton paused when asked whether he had reservations about using inmates to clear homeless camps.
“That’s not really a concern of what Odot needs to look at,” he said.
During a recent sweep, inmates worked amid verdant undergrowth to break down and clean up a camp, dismantling and disposing of tents, mattresses, bicycle parts, clothing and trash. They held plastic bags open for one another, and dropped used syringes into a sharps container.
“Anything’s better than sitting in a cell all day, losing your fucking mind,” said Alex Sosa, 25. “Smelling everybody’s farts from the baloney they serve you every day.”
Three inmates listening to Sosa, all tanned from cleaning camps through the summer, laughed. As they described it, their work is important and necessary. All four said they were in jail for driving under the influence – the sheriff’s department doesn’t assign anyone to crews outside the jail if they have committed a person-to-person crime, said spokesman Lt Chad Gaidos.
Although none of the four inmates said they had ever been homeless, the people in the camps are sometimes familiar to them. “We see the same faces out here in the camps that are in our dorm, in the jail,” said one of the men, Colby Robillard, 26. “I recognize their faces.”
Deputy Jana McCallum stood with her hands on her utility belt and watched the work from behind wraparound sunglasses. She said there is a “vicious cycle” involving jail, homelessness and the work teams, and had once found a former crew member living in a homeless camp.
“He looked healthy when he was in jail, because he got a chance to clean up. And then he gets back out and you can tell he’s been weathered,” she said. “He comes up to me and he says ‘Hey, how you doing McCallum?’ And I said, ‘Good – you’re looking kind of tired.’ He says, ‘I’m high right now, and I’ll probably see you guys in a little bit.’”
Such interactions underline the connection between homelessness and incarceration. Between one-quarter and one-half of homeless people have a history of incarceration, a 2013 study noted, and a fifth of all homeless people in the UK have committed a crime to get off the street, according to a 2010 survey.
Being homeless doesn’t necessarily lead to crime, but a criminal record can mean rejections when applying to rent property, for instance, while drug use, which is more common on the streets than among the general population, raises the risk of encounters with police.
As difficult as Portland’s inmate sweeps are for many of those involved, not least those who careen between homelessness and the work crews, they can also have an unintended, cautionary effect.
Robillard, the inmate, said the upsetting things he sees while cleaning the camps serves as a reminder of how close he has come to the edge in his own struggles with drugs. If his DUI wasn’t a wake-up call, then the camp cleanups are.
“I never want to get to that point,” he said, glancing at the nearby camp. “I don’t want that to be me.”
A few feet away, a few minutes later, a homeless man named Dave D gave a similar warning about incarceration while loading up six shopping carts. “Better not to get in trouble,” he said.
This story was first published in The Guardian.