Portland Copwatch, late last month, noticed something curious on one of the many anti-camping notices that have gone up around city hall in the aftermath of Mayor Charlie Hales' police crackdown on sidewalk violations and large homeless campsites.
Near the bottom of the notice, which is topped with the Bureau of Transportation's logo, there's a small warning: If your property is confiscated in a camp sweep, "a charge of $2 may be made for removal and storage of the personal property."
This isn't a small issue—even if the dollar amount in question might seem that way. Two bucks for someone on the street, with nothing, can be a huge sum. And if someone does have some money—maybe a donation, maybe something from a pension or disability check—it might be held with the confiscated property.
Moreover, Portland spent years in court haggling with homelessness advocates over this very same subject—how the city treats, stores, and returns confiscated property. A settlement with the Oregon Law Center and several homeless plaintiffs, finally approved in August 2012, lists several new protections for how property is handled. It does not include mention of a potential fee.
So what gives? It turns out, according to Hales' office, the whole thing is a mistake and should never have been included in the notice.
Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, sent me a message this week when I inquired:
"The flier was in error. The city will not charge people to collect their items. We believe—we’re still trying to track this down—that someone, possibly in PBOT, photocopied a flier from ODOT [the Oregon Department of Transportation] or elsewhere, did a copy-and-paste, and brought over the $2 fee.
That does not reflect a change in policy. It reflects an error in photocopying...
We also apologize to anyone who saw the flier and was under impression we were changing policy. This was a mistake—period."
It's unclear how many fliers went up with the erroneous language—and for how long. But Haynes also told me the notices "are in the process of being fixed." And he checked with the city's facilities department: "No one has been charged because of that dumb sign."
Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch, for one, was relieved to hear the mayor's office say that.
But, then, there's another question: Is it true that ODOT has the $2 language on its camping notices? And that, it seems, is true.
Don Hamilton, an ODOT spokesman, confirms "we have that wording." He read it out for me. It's exact. But Hamilton was quick to say the charge has never been used—the language does say, after all, the charge "may be made."
"We have the authority," he says. "But we have not been employing that fee. It's not been a part of the precess of returning belongings to the property owners."
I asked why, then, it was even included. He told me it was to deter scavengers who would take advantage of ODOT's property collection and recovery procedures. Currently, when a camp is cleared, workers bag everything of value and put those baggies into larger bags that are then tagged with the camp's location and a description of the property. Property is returned if someone can describe the item and the location where it was collected.
"That is in our system as a way to discourage people from coming and taking property that's not their own," says Hamilton, adding that ODOT generally keeps property for longer than the 30 days it promises to hold it.
But might even the threat of a $2 fee keep people who aren't scavengers from trying to get their property back?
"We've been able to successfully recover property that belongs to owners," he says. "We don't have any indication it's discouraged legitimate owners from recovering their property."
That's different from what Portland's experience has been, at least during the recent sweeps.
"Nobody has ever picked up anything from the sweeps," Haynes says. "So it’s not that we didn’t charge people to store their belongings (idiot error that was), but it never came up because so far, nobody has asked for any of their stuff back."
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