This past Valentine’s Day, Lillian Blackwolf was sleeping in her tent in a place locals call the Pillars, named for the concrete columns that hold up the Interstate 205 overpass above the Springwater Corridor. That’s when a Rapid Response Bio Clean truck—hired by the City of Portland to clean up homeless camps—drove down the pedestrian path, hit the houseless woman’s tent, and sped off.
“I had alcohol burning, because that’s how we heat up our food sometimes, and I was lying there, and I fell out,” recalls Blackwolf. “The next thing you know, I was waking up to my hair wrapped up in the tent… and I get jerked to the middle of the tent. When I look outside my tent, I see the big dump truck.”
Blackwolf believes the truck’s tire ran over part of her head or her hair, dragging her across the tent. When she stood up, she felt “lightheaded and dizzy,” so she laid back down. Matthew Smith, a friend who witnessed the incident, says he stayed with her that evening. When she didn’t feel better the next morning, Blackwolf went to a local emergency room.
After being discharged the next day, Blackwolf returned to her damaged tent and says she was met by Smith; Rapid Response owner and president Lance Hamel; Tiffany Grigg, an outreach coordinator for Clackamas Service Center, a provider of services for the homeless; and the driver of the cleanup truck. After the driver apologized, Blackwolf says, Hamel paid for her to stay eight nights at the nearby Del Rancho Motel and gifted her a new tent and sleeping bag.
More than four months later, much about the incident remains unclear. Key players, including the City of Portland, Rapid Response, and Clackamas Service Center declined to discuss the event in detail with the Mercury. Advocates for the homeless say the event represents a pattern of bad behavior by Rapid Response, which has allegedly engaged in physical altercations, destroyed people’s belongings—including much-needed medication—and driven recklessly through homeless encampments. Blackwolf’s experience shows how, for many living outdoors, contracted trash cleanup crews have become the face of the city. And it’s not a very friendly one.
The incident and its aftermath raise questions about the practices of both Rapid Response, a key local contractor, and the city program that oversees campsite cleanups, the Homelessness/Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP).
Here’s how Hamel described the incident in an email to the Mercury: “There was an incident where one of our trucks ran over the edge of a tent that was set up in close proximity to the I-205 multi-use path. After speaking with the individual, it was determined that they were not injured. We are now using a spotter walking alongside the truck when we are driving on the trail to ensure the safety of everyone utilizing the path. We want to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”
Police were never called about the incident, Blackwolf and Smith say, and no incident report was written. According to Heather Hafer, spokesperson for the city’s Office of Management and Finance, which oversees HUCIRP, the city “does not have a standard policy” for such incidents.
“Any injury claims are the contractor’s responsibility to resolve, and this is included in the language of their contract,” Hafer wrote in an email to the Mercury. Asked about documents in case of an accident, she noted that “no such documents” exist.
Kristle Delihanty, who heads a street ministry nonprofit and works with Blackwolf as an unofficial advocate, takes a dim view of the situation. “It looks like it’s being swept up like a dirty affair,” she says. “‘Sorry we ran you over, have a great life.’”
Blackwolf thinks people just don’t care.
“I’m just a person on the trail,” she says. “They bought me this room and this tent and stuff, like, to shut me up. Like they know they’re wrong. Because the guy just said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry I ran you over,’ just peeking his head in the tent door. Is that how you would apologize to somebody you almost killed?”
In October 2015, the city declared a “state of emergency” regarding the city’s housing and homelessness issues, expediting permits and softening zoning restrictions for shelters and affordable housing. Since then, voters have approved nearly $1 billion for affordable housing in the Portland metro area. At the same time, campsite cleanups have ramped up in response to a huge increase in complaints recieved via One Point of Contact (OPC), the online system that enables Portlanders to report on homeless camps. Those overseeing OPC are also tasked with “cleanup coordination and responding to community complaints,” according to their website.
A portion of the sites reported through OPC—about 12 percent in the last fiscal year—are assigned for cleanup, with HUCIRP coordinating efforts with three different firms to pick up the garbage and biohazards that amass at these sites. One, Central City Concern’s Clean Start, handles around 1,000 sites a month, according to Hafer. A second contractor, Pacific Patrol Services, handles close-in areas through their sister company, Positive Action Cleaning, and provides warehouse storage for campers’ personal property. Rapid Response, says Hafer, works “everywhere else.”
In March, the city released an audit of HUCIRP that determined “demand for services has pushed the program past its capacity” and offered recommendations to improve its processes.
Complaints reported to OPC have hit an all-time high this year, with 876 reports reported in a single week. The reports received have grown from 139 in 2015 to 25,460 in 2018, Hafer says, with the number of campsite cleanups performed during that time growing from 139 to 3,122.
“What started as a temporary response to people living outside has evolved into a program spending more than $3.6 million annually,” notes the city audit.
On May 22, Portland City Council voted unanimously to authorize a competitive process to win HUCIRP contracts that, over five years, will pay out an estimated $25 million.
Texts between Rapid Response owner Hamel and HUCIRP program manager Lucas Hillier, obtained via public records request, suggest coordination regarding the February incident with Blackwolf. “I just took that lady staying in the Del Rancho motel a new tent two new sleeping bags and two new chairs I guess her boyfriend Matt had to leave because they were getting a bunch of complaints about his dog,” Hamel texted Hillier on February 21. (Smith and Blackwolf say they’re just friends.)
A copy of a $750 receipt for Room 26 of the Del Rancho Hotel, given to Blackwolf by a hotel manager and then shared with the Mercury, bears Hamel’s signature and corroborates this information.
When Blackwolf went to Adventist Health’s emergency room after the accident, she complained of head, neck, and back pain, along with ringing ears and muscle spasms. Discharge paperwork Blackwolf shared with the Mercury notes a “closed head injury,” which can result when a traumatic blow causes the brain to knock against the skull.
“My neck still hurts and I’m still not able to walk right,” Blackwolf said in February. “The back of my head hurts.”
The paperwork also indicates drug abuse. Blackwolf admits to a history of addiction, and still drinks beer and smokes cannabis, but says she was sober on Valentine’s Day. She adds that she’s worked hard to overcome a checkered past and barriers to housing, with the help of work training programs. She worked for a cab company for eight years, but often, she says, it’s been one step forward, one step back.
The Pillars isn’t a place anyone wants to stay at for very long.
The area has a history of tragedies. A notice posted at the Pillars in March reported a “brutal attack” in January. Rob Aquino, a houseless man who helps distribute food to local camps, says most homeless individuals know not to go there.
But, with many unhoused people getting around town by bicycle, the Pillars’ location—at the intersection of the Springwater Corridor and the I-205 bike path—makes it convenient.
“It is the superhighway of information, of goods, of everything for the homeless population,” says Lisa Lake, CEO of homeless advocacy nonprofit Advocacy 5. “So it’s important. It’s a place that a lot of people gather. Camps come and go through there.”
Residents at the Pillars say the routine campsite cleanups hinder their ability to find stability and permanent housing—interrupting what officials call the “continuum” of care.
“I’ve tried to get off the streets,” said Marylou, 55, as she cooked oatmeal at the Pillars in March. “But it’s really hard when you’re moving every three days. Shelters are full.”
“My girlfriend’s pregnant,” said Katelynn Eccleston, another camper at the Pillars. “She’s due like any moment now, and they came and took everything—no warning, no nothing.”
Minutes later, a Rapid Response crew drove a white Isuzu truck down the path—with a man walking in front. Then they left.
During a May 22 Portland City Council discussion about HUCIRP cleanups, Mayor Ted Wheeler echoed a public comment that accused HUCIRP of harassing the homeless.
“How do you respond to that?” Wheeler asked HUCIRP’s Hillier.
“We try to reduce the amount of harm or trauma that the people doing this work on behalf of the city are inflicting on people,” Hillier responded. “I don’t know that I’d feel good to say that we don’t ever inflict any kind of trauma, because when somebody’s living outside, and somebody comes and tells them, ‘We’re going to collect property,’ that’s a traumatic experience inherently.”
As of March 18, Rapid Response, which employs around 25 people, had received a total of $1.175 million since it began work for the city, says Hafer. While its 2016 contract was for up to $100,000 over five years, Rapid Response is now authorized to receive up to $1 million annually from the city. (Clean Start is granted $505,000 a year, and Pacific Patrol Services is authorized $523,118 a year.) A city contract pays Rapid Response employees $89 an hour for “lead worker” positions and $79 for “assistant worker.”
The payday for Rapid Response doesn’t end there. Vancouver, Washinton, recently contracted with the company for $300,000 to clean homeless camps at similar rates. The company also has a $50,000 contract with Metro and works in Washington and Clackamas counties. Metro’s contract describes the work as “removal and disposal of bio-hazardous waste, hoarding, and gross filth.”
In March, Rapid Response employees spoke briefly to the Mercury at the Pillars. (Hamel declined to confirm employees’ names.)
“It pays the bills,” said a man who gave his name as Stefan.
“It’s honestly nice to clean up the city,” said Khalil as he picked up a plastic bottle full of yellow liquid. “I was born and raised in Portland.”
Unlike other contractors, Rapid Response’s cleanups require campers relocate. The firm follows a city mandated procedure, which begins with posting an “Illegal Campsite” notice at the site the city instructs them to clean. Contractors then notify HUCIRP and homeless service providers. The notice states the cleanup will occur “no less than 48 hours after and within 10 days” of the date it’s posted. Not knowing precisely when a contractor will come, many homeless people in the camps wait until the crews actually show up to move their belongings.
The tense relationship between campers and contractors has inspired many in the homeless community to call it “Rabid Response.”
Blackwolf estimates she’s been displaced by Rapid Response 40 times in the past two years. Delihanty, who runs the street ministry, says she observed “shitty behavior” when a Rapid Response cleanup crew member threw a houseless person’s “life-saving medicine” into a truck—even though, she says, the container was marked with a “big red cross” and read “medicine inside.”
“After I stomped my feet for 40 minutes, they finally got in the back of the truck,” Delihanty says, “[but] they couldn’t locate all the medicine… so we had to get this guy into an urgent care.”
There are other documented incidents involving Rapid Response at the Pillars. According to a police report, a Rapid Response crew was cleaning up abandoned shopping carts on May 9 when an altercation occurred between James Barrett, a houseless man, and Quentin Gonzales, a Rapid Response employee. When Barrett asked about getting his property back, Gonzales allegedly directed Barrett to police, who were located 50 yards away.
But Barrett ignored Gonzales and climbed onto the back of the Rapid Response truck, prompting Gonzales to pull him out and pin him on the ground
“Gonzales said when he grabbed Barrett and pulled him off his truck, Barrett swung a plastic box and hit him in the neck/head area,” wrote Portland Police Bureau officer Adi Ramic, who arrived on the scene shortly afterwards. “Gonzales said at that point he made decision to take Barrett to the ground and hold him.” The report also claims that Barrett had a 12-inch knife on his belt and a “large dog.”
Neither the city nor Rapid Response would answer the Mercury’s questions about the incident.
Sabrina Urdes, the chair for the Lents Neighborhood Association (LNA), says that homelessness and the resultant trash that builds up from camps like the one at the Pillars remain big challenges.
“Ultimately, I think people are starting to get hopeless with the situation, with the trash,” Urdes says. “We need larger solutions. It needs to come from the city. It’s a bigger issue than what one or two neighbors can do by coming together.”
Urdes declined to comment on HUCIRP or Rapid Response. But she recalled a recent cleanup effort with a private neighborhood “livability” nonprofit that turned divisive.
“Last spring, we tried to do a joint cleanup with the Lents Neighborhood Livability Association,” says Urdes. “It was a dumpster cleanup. We tried to do it as a partnership. It ended up not working out.”
David Potts, president of the Lents Neighborhood Livability Association (LNLA), says the LNLA paid for and headed the cleanup and some LNA board members pitched in.
LNLA, whose “Alley Angels” volunteer to clean up Lents’ alleyways, hosts a blog that discusses reporting “feral humans” and “shitbirds” to the city. In May, LNLA’s Facebook page included a Rapid Response job posting.
“We have nothing but praise” for Rapid Response, says Potts, who says he hasn’t observed the contractor’s interactions with houseless people.
Beverly Christman, a Lents resident whose backyard abuts the Pillars, says she has given milk to homeless mothers with babies who have knocked on her door. She once volunteered at Dignity Village, a tiny-house village for the homeless near Portland International Airport, and thinks the Pillars could benefit from a similar encampment.
“They need a place to go,” Christman says. “Put them in some place and let them get help.”
“If all we owe this woman is a hotel room, there’s some inequities here that we should look at.” —State Representative Tawna Sanchez
That’s exactly what the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), an office funded by the city and Multnomah County, has been trying to do. JOHS recently steered $12 million towards single-room occupancy housing, as well as $4 million toward supportive housing for chronically homeless individuals like Blackwolf and Smith.
Even as the federal government cuts billions of dollars that were once set aside for affordable housing, Mayor Wheeler’s proposed budget includes a record-high $15 million for homeless services. And in the wake of the March audit of HUCIRP, the city unveiled a plan to increase the program’s staff, bulk up its website, and focus on best practices.
During the May City Council meeting, Hillier said HUCIRP has worked “really hard” to train contractors how to interact with houseless people. He said he wants future contracts to require the currently optional training.
During that same hearing, Commissioner Nick Fish mentioned the Anderson Agreement, a 2009 legal proceeding that set rules for how the city and its contractors handle homeless people’s possessions. Blackwolf’s experience—and the audit—suggest it’s being ignored.
The audit found “weak or non-existing” policies for safeguarding confiscated property. Several campers told auditors their property had been thrown away.
Blackwolf never got back her damaged tent, which was twice as big as the tent Hamel gave her.
Rep. Tawna Sanchez, who represents North Portland in the Oregon legislature, sees Blackwolf’s case as part of a larger issue.
“If the situation were different, if that were somebody with means or who had a place to live, there would be a lawsuit,” Sanchez says. “If all we owe this woman is a hotel room, there’s some inequities here that we should look at.”