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Again with the Fences

More Homeless Sweep Fallout: Closed Park

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THE WORD came down at Chapman Square sometime on Thursday, August 29—just about when park rangers were making their appointed rounds.

The downtown park—home to the dozens of homeless campers and protestors who'd been swept from Portland City Hall this summer—would be fenced off over the weekend.

The next day, an internal email from city hall—obtained by the Mercury and published on Blogtown—confirmed the chatter and spoke of property destruction, fights, and ruined grass. And by Saturday, August 31, the park was closed off for the first time since Occupy Portland's riot-cop eviction in November 2011.

"The rangers are tired of this," a camper told the Mercury the night before. "They warned us they'd be closing the place off to clean it up. But this is going to continue. This is displacement."

The fences mark the latest move in an escalating game of cat-and-mouse with protestors, weeks after what now appears to be a failed push to move campers and their piled possessions from the heart of Portland's government. Earlier last month, the feds briefly fenced off another park filled with campers—Terry D. Schrunk Plaza across from city hall.

The email, sent at the behest of Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz, also mentions new, unspecified "additional enforcement changes" that could come before city council later this month.

And it comes, notably, at an especially crucial time for Mayor Charlie Hales' already-flagging vision of a rejuvenated city hall plaza.

In part because of slow business, but also because of lingering tensions with the protestors it displaced, the only cart that bothered to set up in the plaza, Fuego, pulled out last week and returned to its previous perch in front of the Portland Building. Fuego had been in the plaza for less than two weeks.

On Fuego's second-to-last day in the plaza, Monday, August 26, housing-justice activists led by former hunger striker Cameron Whitten held a lunchtime protest of Hales' plaza plans—handing out free burritos to passersby (but also, Whitten says, a $50 tip to the cart itself).

With the cart gone, city workers on Wednesday, August 28, packed away the tables and chairs that had been purchased specifically for the plaza at a cost of nearly $4,000.

Meanwhile, with no other carts lined up to take Fuego's place, the city's facilities office emailed a pitch to an undisclosed list of cart owners, casting the pod as a one-year pilot project where carts would be rotated in for three-month visits. The email also made clear that the new seating in city hall wouldn't be truly public—cart workers would be in charge of keeping them clear for customers and chaining them up at the end of business every day.

In recent days, Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, has been emailing and meeting with one of the camping protest's primary organizers, Mike Withey, to go over some of Withey's demands.

"They're looking for answers," Withey tells the Mercury.

Emails obtained by the Mercury show Haynes planning to brief Hales on a six-point plan prepared by Withey, including another try at car-camping in church parking lots and a commitment to set up relief camps in Portland.

Haynes confirmed the discussions. And when asked if they were a bid to ease tensions, he said, "Yep, absolutely."

"Mr. Withey's points," he said, "are worth considering and talking about."

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