BikePortland

Homeless campers and family biking fears


I began by scouting Google Reviews for a new family bike adventure to Dairy Creek Park, near Downtown Hillsboro. It’s in good biking range from our home and looks like a beautiful park, especially since it includes wooded trails and a creek, thus it provides unstructured nature play, something that’s hard to find in urban areas. The park also has a playground, big soccer and baseball field, basketball court, and some little shaded picnic areas. Looks like a great spot!

This was not the kind of conundrum I expected when I began to plan a little bike outing.

Except, many of the Google reviews have a common, concerning thread:

“….If you go there, you will be treated by both the park attendants and the homeless residents like you do not belong there and are not welcome there….I have never been there without stepping in feces – dog and human alike. NOT a place for children. Or Washington County taxpayers for that matter….Stay away…”

“There was so much trash here it was disheartening. There is a large houseless camp here and going down trails we ran into multiple people in the woods, invading their space, and that was awkward with two young children with me….”

“When I went the place was full of campers and tents. It was dirty and gross. I was very surprised when I drove in and saw it. If I had kids there is no way I would take them there under current conditions.”

“….Don’t go in the woods! It’s disgusting!….Trash everywhere no place for kids.”

Hmmm…

When planning for new family bike adventures there are various considerations, usually related to the bike route: traffic, bike lanes or lack thereof, distance, terrain (no hills please!), and as we discovered on our very first try: Google’s bike routes aren’t always actually bike-able! There are also considerations about the destinations themselves: Does a park have play options that will appeal to various ages? Are there open, clean-ish, restrooms? Is there shade? What toys/supplies should we bring? Basketball? Tennis rackets? Picnic blanket? Towels for water play?

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Living outside of Portland proper, homelessness is a consideration I haven’t had to contend with, or even think about much: How does homelessness affect our planned park outing? And should it?

Biking is challenging me to consider issues I might otherwise be blind to, or more easily avoid in a car.

Or, after reading such reviews, how should a mom respond? By packing up the van and going somewhere else? But we are biking, and I really don’t want to give up on a gem of a park that is only a short bike ride away; I want to explore every park and place of interest in our little biking range. I don’t want to allow myself to be easily thwarted. I also don’t want to be foolish.

I turn over the reviews in my head, pondering the warnings against visiting the park with children, or at all. I try to pin down my actual fears, and whether they are warranted. As I discuss my concerns with my husband, he characteristically raises an eyebrow, challenging any presumption I make about the unhoused, “Oh really?” he says. “And what do you [rich white woman] know about it? The only homeless person you’ve ever known is the man you married!” (True story.) My now-husband was among unhoused campers, “A dangerous evil vagrant!” he says, mocking me.

Oh, yes, he’ll acknowledge concerns he thinks are valid: trash, feces, possibly drug needles and paraphernalia, drug addicts and mentally ill peoples’ unpredictable or even hostile behavior; but he doesn’t seem worried. He seems to think I can navigate any actual concerns as (or if) I encounter them.

A lot of unhoused persons are just folks. Folks without a roof at the moment, and certainly, recognizing low wages and astronomically high housing costs, among other things, it’s not that difficult to understand how they ended up camping in a park.

My husband smiles and returns to his weekend projects, without making any attempt to answer my actual question: “What should I do?”

“Whatever you think,” is all he said

This was not the kind of conundrum I expected when I began to plan a little bike outing. But it’s interesting how biking (compared to driving) has brought it to my attention. The issue as I see it is; how do we compassionately navigate the needs and rights of the unhoused, along with the safety, cleanliness, and rights of other members of the community to use parks, sidewalks, bike lanes, and public spaces? It is, perhaps, a defining issue of our times, for the City of Portland in particular, and even — to my naive surprise — out here in Hillsboro too.

Already, biking is challenging me to consider issues I might otherwise be blind to, or more easily avoid in a car. It’s placing me in more direct engagement with my community, since I am not planning to just drive somewhere else. I had thought my planned family bike outing was only going to involve examinations of traffic and a “scary” left turn. Instead, I am face-to-face with the important community issues of homelessness, parks, and shared spaces — alongside my own fears and ignorance of a reality that I have had very little contact with.

All for a bike ride.

A bike ride, it seems, I am going to have to take.

(Stay tuned for part two next week.)

— Shannon Johnson, shannon.marie.johnson915@gmail.com
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