Homeless camps, piles of trash captured in viewer videos

A still image from video of a homeless camp in Cascades Gateway Park in Salem, Oregon. (Image: Chris Casarez)

A Salem man exploring the urban areas of the city recently discovered several homeless camps and was appalled to find mounds of trash.

On hikes along the Santiam Creek and Willamette River, Chris Casarez discovered three major homeless camps at Cascades Gateway and Minto-Brown Island parks as well as on private land near Wallace Marine Park.

Casarez took videos, documenting the camps' filth.

"From needles and syringes, pipes, clothing," Casarez listed. "Probably stolen property, lots of bikes. ... I was kind of in awe at how much was back there."

After encouragement, Casarez posted four videos online. So far, they have been viewed more than 50,000 times, and have certainly sparked conversation.

"I wasn't sure what kind of reaction it was going to get," he told a KATU reporter. "I didn't expect it to get as big as it did."

Casarez said he would like to see the trash removed or for leaders to create a system of regular disposal services.

"I understand that sometimes, you know, mental health conditions, not all of them are drug addicts or alcoholics," Casarez said. "I understand that some people actually do choose to live out there by choice, and I have been able to talk to a couple of them, you know, that is just how they prefer to live. And that is OK, by all means. But, the concern is for kids going back there, adults, the environment."

Getting the camps cleaned up is complicated by the fact they are on private and public lands. Each landowner said the camps will be checked and cleaned soon, but they didn’t set a concrete time.

The camp at Cascades Gateway City Park is on land owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

ODOT spokesperson Lou Torres told KATU he was made aware of Casarez's videos. He says there are a total of six or seven sizable camps on ODOT property in the Salem area.

Torres says ODOT saw a substantial increase in the number of camps, illegal camping and garbage in the Salem area.

"The problem continues to grow, and is now costing the state millions to clean up these camps," Torres wrote in an email. "In fact, last year the cost doubled from the previous year. And that doesn't include the cities and counties."

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KATU learned four camps have been posted with 10-day notices. The camp at Cascades Gateway will be posted soon.

Torres added that ODOT decided to delay posting notices or performing camp sweeps last month, ahead of the Point-In-Time homeless count.

"We didn't want to adversely affect or disturb that count by posting and doing cleanups in January," Torres said. "We explained that to citizens who were calling wondering why we weren't cleaning up some of these illegal camps."

Torres added that ODOT postponed illegal camp cleanup work because of several winter storms that impacted different regions of the state.

"The state's plan on these illegal camps hasn't changed," Torres wrote. "They are unsafe for campers and highway users, and they are illegal. They can also create environmental hazards, cause wildfires (during the summer), and they can interfere with ODOT's ability to safely maintain the state highway system, including roads, bridges, vegetation and bicycle and pedestrian paths. We will continue to respond to the public concerns about illegal camping on the state right of way."

Torres says ODOT generally partners with local authorities in efforts to cleanup camps.

In the last year, many public agencies have changed their approaches to policing homelessness.

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Salem Police Lt. Treven Upkes says they try to avoid sweeping camps, and especially without warning.

"No one will go from, 'Here is your ticket for illegal camping,' to 'OK, now I want to stop being homeless and I’m going to go,'" Upkes said rhetorically. "We want to enforce the laws that we can with dignity and respect. Our first goal is to try to figure out why people are homeless and remedy that situation, not through arrest, but other projects the city has."

The city of Salem takes a housing-first approach.

Its many partners include the Salem Housing Authority, NW Human Services, Community Action Agency and the men's Mission.

In summer of 2017, the city launched the Homeless Rental Assistance Program, which links the “hardest to house” homeless individuals to housing, food, furnishings, and social services. So far, 100 individuals have been moved into housing.

"With our partner Community Action Agency, if a person experiencing homelessness has been identified as having high needs and scoring really high on an assessment tool," Upkes said, "then they can get in the front of the line for services, to get housing that the city has helped provide."

The city says it has set aside additional funding for affordable housing and plans to build more this year and the following year.

Many organizations will accompany police officers when they visit homeless camps. Upkes says they are present before and during a planned camp sweep.

Upkes says Salem Police Department has a nationally recognized unit called the "Problem-Oriented Policing" Team or POP for short. Officers are specially trained in crisis intervention and are tasked with monitoring homeless camps. They work hand-in-hand with community organizations and provide regular feedback to the city's homelessness task force.

"It’s a fine line that we have to work towards," Upkes said. "Taking care of our environment, which is being affected by these large camps, as well as those people’s individual rights and other people's rights, and we have to figure out where that fits in the mandate of the city. We want to take care of everybody as best as we can, and we understand those issues. We work to address them as quickly as we can."

Upkes says a camp on Minto-Brown Island Park is on city land, but the camp is not technically on park land, thus policed under different laws. He says the city and police department is aware of the camp and working to find an appropriate solution.

Homeless camps near Wallace Marine Park have been a longtime issue.

The majority of camps are currently on private land, owned by Walling Investments and leased to RiverBend Materials.

KATU shared the videos with KC Klosterman, RiverBend Materials' director of government & community relations. He told KATU the camps have caused recent concern as they are near active work areas and equipment. He says a local manager contacted Polk County Sheriff's Office.

Klosterman added that the property owner has not taken an aggressive approach with the homeless campers in the past, but that may change.

"We've been trying to work with the campers, the city and county sheriff's deputies," Klosterman said by phone.

According to Oregon Housing and Community Services, there are more 1,500 homeless individuals in Marion and Polk Counties and more than 13,000 in the state in 2017.

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