Although Few Homeless People have Coronavirus, Portland is to Resume Clearing Camps

Surving Homelessness in time of Pandemic

Tonda Eisenburg shares a snack with her dog, Bella. Eisenburg camps along Peninsula Crossing Trail with dozens of other people who have clustered there since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.Molly Harbarger/staff

Friday morning was warm, and campers along the Pacific Crossing Trail visited with neighbors, dug into sack lunches delivered by volunteers and generally lived life as if they weren’t in the midst of a pandemic.

None were wearing masks, but why would they? Only eight homeless people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Multnomah County, even after homeless campers formed large tent encampments in Old Town, along Interstate 205 and on the North Portland Peninsula pedestrian path.

Katie O’Brien, the executive director of Rose Haven, a homeless social service agency near Old Town Chinatown, dreads the resumption of city camp clearing.

She is already bracing for the onslaught of women who will come to ask for help finding a place to go, only to be told that shelters are largely full and few service providers are operating at normal capacity.

We get why people are saying this needs to be done, but we can’t in good conscience do that — these sweeps — without providing alternatives,” O’Brien said.

She has seen news reports and heard from neighbors and business owners who characterize the homeless campers in the central city as all criminals or junkies. But that is not the case, she said, and moving people is certainly not going to mitigate any bad behavior that may be going on.