Site icon BikePortland

Springwater path users feel threatened by campers, police say their hands are tied

Buffered Bike Lane with a bike symbol and arrow pointing forward

Springwater path near SE 82nd.
(Photo: Mark Mollenkopf)

Neighborhood advocates and residents say conditions on the Springwater Corridor path near its intersection of SE 82nd have reached a boiling point. Things have gotten so bad that local residents have dubbed it the “Avenue of Terror.” At issue is the behavior of people who live in tents and under tarps adjacent to the path and the impact their presence is having on users of the path and the surrounding community.

In recent weeks we’ve heard from several readers with concerns about the situation and from a Portland Police Bureau officer who says there’s not enough officers to deal with the issue and a federal court decision has constrained their enforcement power.

“There is a major public health issue brewing here.”

Mark Mollenkopf rides through this area of the Springwater on his daily ride to work. He says he’s counted up to 20 tents and has seen “chop shop activities,” drug use, and a lot of other illegal behaviors.

In a December 18th email to BikePortland (that was also sent to the Portland Bike Theft Task Force, KATU News, and the City of Portland) Mollenkopf wrote, “There is a major public health issue brewing here.” He said the all the trash, broken glass, and drug paraphenalia he often sees strewn on the path is “really getting out of hand.”

But it’s the fear and intimidation Mollenkopf has feels while using the path that he’s most concerned about. He recounted a time when five people were blocking the path as he attempted to ride by. “As I got about 20 feet from them they started telling me to turn around and go somewhere else, I asked that they move aside so I can pass and one of them (who I saw again this morning) yells, ‘Are you kidding? Get the fuck out of here!'”

A week later Mollenkopf said two men watched him as he rode by and one of them yelled, “Nice bike, hope it doesn’t get stolen!”

Mollenkopf is worried that if the situation continues someone will end up getting hurt. “It adds up to a bad environment and I see kids riding to and from school on this section of the MUP which concerns me as well,” he wrote, “What are they being exposed to?”

“This is the one area I leave after dark.”

Terry Dublinski-Milton is a neighborhood activist and board member of the Southeast Uplift Neighborhood Association (we profiled him back in June). The topic of “the situation on the Springwater corridor” was talked about at length during their board meeting meeting this week. He said people are concerned about how the camps are impacting a nearby creek and environmental restoration area that volunteers have spent 20 years working to restore.

“There has been property damage, physical threats against people, drug dealing, prostitution under the bridges, encroachment that closes off the trail.”

“Though there has always been issues with the houseless camping here, the situation is at a boiling point,” he shared with us via email this morning. “There has been property damage, physical threats against people, drug dealing, prostitution under the bridges, encroachment that closes off the trail.”

Dublinksi-Milton says local residents now call the stretch of the Springwater path between SE Luther and 92nd Avenue, “The Avenue of Terror.”

Even though he considers himself a very strong and confident rider who will roll through any part of the city, Dublinski-Milton says because of recent experiences, “This is the one area I leave after dark.”

“Aggressive, territorial behavior from campers is increasing.”

Sellwood resident Chris DiStefano rode his bike on the Springwater several times during the Christmas holiday. After riding through areas of the path full of tents and trash, he shared his experience via a Facebook post on December 28th. “Trash and physical encroachment on the trail are bad enough,” he wrote. “But now aggressive, territorial behavior from campers is increasing and we all stand to lose a major recreational and transportation corridor.”

DiStefano says he was harrassed several times during the holidays and he’s convinced that broken glass he sees on the path is, “placed there intentionally to discourage future bicycle traffic.”

He wants Metro and the City of Portland to prioritize the issue. “The city responded immediately to downed trees on the trail last week and I appreciate the fast work there. This is a much more complex issue, I know, but one we need to address right away.”

“Enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.”

If you’ve read BikePortland over the years, you’ll know this situation isn’t new. “Security concerns and druge use along Springwater Corridor give some riders pause,” we reported in 2011. Then in August 2012 we shared a series of stories about people who had been physically assaulted and harassed while using the Springwater.

In 2014 we reported about a large encampment that had sprung up further west under the Ross Island Bridge and later that year we shared photos of what one reader claimed to be a brazen stolen bike chop-shop operation around SE 92nd.

If the issue is so well-documented and has existed for so long, why isn’t more being done about it?

There are two answers to that question: One is nothing new, the other is.

“This law… prohibits law enforcement from conducting routine investigative activity on a person based on their homeless status.”

Portland Police Officer Ryan Mele responded to Mark Mollenkopf’s concerns. Mele, an officer on the East Precinct Neighborhood Response Team, told Mollenkopf there were two very good reasons that police have not taken more aggressive action on this issue. The PPB’s current staffing shortage means neighborhood officers like Mele are being pulled away from livability issues and toward patrols in other areas.

Mele also pointed out a recent federal court decision and a state law that went into effect January 1st that has influenced Portland’s enforcement practices.

Mele says the PPB is using a brief filed last August by a district court judge in Idaho (1:09-cv-540-REB) who said that enforcing certain laws on people who live outside, when there is not adequate indoor housing available, would be unconstitutional. Here’s the relevant excerpt from the court:

“If the Court finds that it is impossible for homeless individuals to secure shelter space on some nights because no beds are available, no shelter meets their disability needs, or they have exceeded the maximum stay limitations, then the Court should also find that enforcement of the ordinances under those circumstances criminalizes the status of being homeless and violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution.”

This past legislative session Oregon Governor Kate Brown strengthened that ruling when she signed House Bill 2002 into law. That law was lobbied for by civil rights activists who want to end police profiling based solely on someone’s age, ethnicity, gender, religion, and so on. That list of “real or perceived factors of the individual” that cannot be targeted also includes homelessnes.

If someone living outside along the Springwater corridor is simply doing things that are “inevitably connected to their homeless status,” the police say they can’t investigate it.

Officer Mele says that new law, combined with the Idaho court ruling, has put law enforcement on eggshells. “The City Attorney has instructed us that it is the State’s intent to extend additional rights and protection to homeless people and that the United States Department of Justice is actively watching for activity that appears to be punitive toward homeless people,” Mele wrote in an email to Mollenkopf regarding the Springwater situation on December 21st.

While law enforcement practices are in flux, neighborhood residents are starting to organize. Dublinski-Milton with Southeast Uplift says businesses, other neighborhood associations and residents are forming a new group to do something about “the behaviors that are impacting the whole region.”

“There have been repeated attempts to get the city to act with no avail,” he shared. “So they are hoping to put pressure on for a coordinated response.”

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 –

NOTE: On Sunday 1/17 at 4:39 pm I changed the headline. It used to be, “Springwater path’s ‘Avenue of Terror’ persists, but police hands are tied”. I made the change after thinking about it more and hearing from concerns in the comments that BikePortland endorsed the “terror” characterization. I think the new headline is more accurate and clear. – Jonathan