Portland author Joe Kurmaskie says he feels conditions on the Springwater Corridor path have gotten so bad that he might be forced to cancel his popular teen summer bike camp program.
Kurmaskie, who turned 50 this year, is known for his “Metal Cowboy” books that describe his many adventures while bike touring through the United States and around the world (including two cross-country journeys with his wife and five children). He moved to north Portland in 1998 and now lives in Sellwood. For the past four years he’s run the “Camp Creative: No Child Left Inside” summer camp for 9-13 year olds in partnership with Portland Parks & Recreation. The camp is completely bike-based and the main route used to access activities is the Springwater Corridor. This year Kurmaskie says he’s decided to put the camp on hold because of an increase in unruly and unsafe behavior from people he’s encountered along the path.
“It’s at the point where I’m not being a responsible camp director if I put kids out there.”
— Joe Kurmaskie
The amount of people living and spending time along the Springwater — a 21-mile linear park that runs from downtown Portland through Gresham — has been growing for years since people were forced off the streets near the central city. In the past several months the camps have swelled as Portland Mayor Charlie Hales has allowed outdoor living as part of his efforts to tackle the homeless crisis. We reported on safety concerns along the path near SE 82nd back in January.
“I’m not trying to be alarmist. I don’t scare easily. I’m a guy who’s taken his family across the continent twice,” Kurmaskie said in a phone interview this morning.
“It’s a very difficult and unique problem to address because of the size of the population and some of the pockets and people who may be bad actors.”
— Joshua Alpert, Chief of Staff for Portland Mayor Charlie Hales.
Kurmaskie added that his concerns about safety on the path have grown since a woman was sexually assaulted last month. Kurmaskie says he’s also experienced several “troubling” incidents in the past few months including: when someone jumped out of the bushes and caused him and his two boys to have to swerve; when someone threw a glass bottle over his head; and when a man rode up behind him with sharpened sticks in his hand.
“When someone rides up behind me and has ‘Wolverine-style’ sticks duct-taped to their hands swings out towards me, like, ‘Move out of my way I’ve got Wolverine hands!’,” Kurmaskie said. “It’s at the point where I’m not being a responsible camp director if I put kids out there. I can’t wait, with good conscience, for something bad to happen this summer. I can’t do the activities we want to do with the kids if I’m always looking over my shoulder and on security detail.”
About three months ago, as Kurmaskie began preparing curriculum for this summer’s camps (which are supposed to start in June), he emailed Mayor Charlie Hales’ office to share his concerns. Kurmaskie said he never got a response. “Since I didn’t hear anything back, I’m in desparate mode.”
Mayor Hales’ Chief of Staff Josh Alpert, who said they receive about 300 to 400 phone calls and emails a day about the Springwater and related issues, told us this morning that, “Our goal is to have nobody sleeping on the Springwater corridor.” But Alpert said the problem won’t be solved by Portland alone. “It’s bigger than we have the capacity to address.”
Alpert said the city has initiated a process with Oregon Consensus to convene all cities and agencies that share jurisdictional responbilities for the Springwater. After meeting with them Friday, Alpert said, “They’re putting a plan together to move forward fast with early summer as an end date for this process.”
For the Mayor’s office, the Springwater is being treated as a separate concern than the issue of people camping outside in other parts of the city. “From our standards, the Springwater is a completely different situation so we’ve put it into a separate process. It’s a 21-mile trail in the middle of wooded areas… It’s a very difficult and unique problem to address because of the size of the population and some of the pockets and people who may be bad actors.”
In February there was a deadly shooting in a Seattle-area homeless camp known as “the Jungle.” Alpert said they’ve taken lessons from that incident. “We decided not to go in and start moving people,” he said. “Particularly when we know that there are a variety of people with a lot of challenges in that area.”
Despite the public’s concerns with conditions on the Springwater, Alpert says he feels the Mayor’s approach is working. “It just takes time to have a visible change.” He said they are continuing to enforce against criminal behavior while working towards a plan to move people out of the Springwater Corridor area.
Asked to respond to people who say they are too afraid to use the path, Alpert said, “People should use their judgment. We’re working as fast as we can to restore it to public access and to make it as safe as it can be.”
Kurmaskie, who’s known by neighbors as “the bleeding-heart liberal who helps the homeless” because he gathers supplies for people he’s met along the Springwater and has become what he calls “an informal case-worker” for two homeless men, said he knows the solutions to these problems aren’t easy. He chalks much of it up to “escalating rents and the ridiculous playground for the rich we’re turning Portland into.” “I don’t want to see us just sweep everyone out… We have to address housing and mental health for everyone in our community.”
“I don’t have any quick answers,” he added. “But we’ve got to address this head-on rather than just moving people around and making the entire city an open camp.”
UPDATE, 4:18 pm: The Parks bureau initially deferred to Alpert when I asked them for a comment this morning. But I’ve now heard from them again. Here’s an update from Parks spokesman Mark Ross:
“Our staff will be calling Joe, if they have not already, to see if he’s interested in talking about potential alternatives. As I understand it, the camps are not held until August; so there should be ample time to look at options, if that is something that he is interested in.
The conversation would be a welcome starting point; and potentially include holding camps at other sites, or holding them as planned. Our staff at Sellwood [Community Center] says they had never heard about his concerns until today when he posted on social media.”
— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – firstname.lastname@example.org
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