Near the Crystal Lake Sports Fields in Corvallis, just north of the mud bank where Da Vinci Days were once held on the banks of the Willamette River, there is a campsite ideal for those without housing.
Ideal in the summer, that is. At this time of year, it’s an environmental hazard.
Last week, water levels were rising rapidly. Bill O’Brien and his friend Jean-Luc Devis, members of a larger group of Corvallis residents and volunteers, were there Monday picking up trash at an abandoned homeless encampment.
The couple had to don overalls and slippers to cross the new knee-deep bog. Bagging and trashing the trash left behind, they made their way to the other side, succeeding in the quest to move the leftover discarded items to a higher altitude.
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The group of volunteers tries to prevent the waste from being washed into the river. From trash to camping gear and even used needles, there is a full range of trash found in abandoned campsites that can be washed away quickly at this time of year.
Volunteers normally only target unoccupied camps, but this site still had a man crouched in a tent, trying to stay warm and dry in the pouring rain.
The individual, who declined to speak to reporters on the site, remains unidentified. O’Brien and Devis urged him to leave and avoid the danger of rushing water; the water line was rising literally by the minute.
“He has to get out of here,” O’Brien said. “If this water rises any higher tonight, he’s going to be completely flooded with water. It could be deadly, and he won’t be able to get out of here.
O’Brien offered the man a ride and the chance to borrow a wetsuit to get back to dry land, but the camper refused.
Corvallis police were called to the scene and tried to convince the man to leave, but he chose to stay anyway. Later that evening, O’Brien returned to see him once more. The man was still there, although he had moved his tent further up the banks to stay dry.
Homeless advocates and river cleaners say the episode highlights the larger problem: When people don’t have safe places to camp elsewhere in the city, they choose unsafe spots. And the flooding of riparian areas, the wetlands adjacent to rivers, is not just problematic for homeless people: the waste they leave behind poses an environmental hazard, especially when washed into the water.
Volunteers like O’Brien and Devis describe mountains of rubbish that could fill a train carriage at several sites around Corvallis. O’Brien specifically pointed to a juice container filled with used syringes as evidence of the type of hazardous materials they encounter.
His close-knit group of friends and volunteers are river recreation enthusiasts, who particularly enjoy kayaking. He’s not just a retired Albany firefighter, he served on the agency’s earliest water rescue and diving teams.
He is no stranger to the turbulent waters of the Willamette. Usually, however, the danger is the water itself rather than any debris that might float in it.
It was these environmental concerns that led to the creation of organizations like the Willamette River Guardians program, which began in Eugene in 2014 with the goal of keeping trash out of riverine areas. The group has also worked at Corvallis in recent years.
Although solving the problem of homelessness is not an essential part of the group’s mission, it is indelibly linked to the problem of litter in the rivers.
“As the problem of homelessness has grown, there is a need for us to organize an effort to help address the symptoms of this,” said Michelle Emmons, Upper Willamette Watershed program coordinator for the group. “By supporting organizations that care for the homeless, we are directly helping to solve our problem of clean rivers.”
While O’Brien is not part of the Willamette River Guardians program, Devis and others who help clean up the river are. The town of Corvallis has a partnership with the organization due to liability issues.
“As a city, we had liability issues,” said Corvallis parks supervisor Jude Geist. “There are needles, human waste and various other hazards associated with these camps, … so we weren’t comfortable doing our own volunteer effort.”
There are also jurisdictional considerations. Camps can pop up anywhere, from city and county park lands to railroad rights-of-way and places maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Even private companies can see camps forming on their properties.
Because of this patchwork, it can often be easier for a group of volunteers to make deals with these various organizations and do the cleanup themselves.
O’Brien and others say they often paid out of pocket to haul the waste to the nearby landfill rather than risk it remaining in heaps to be washed away in the river.
Not that the city isn’t cleaning up any camps. Full-time and part-time park crews will often pass by and clean up debris left behind by camps that had been advised to vacate; the law requires volunteers and city crews to provide a few weeks’ notice before clearing camps.
Corvallis will likely double its 2020 waste disposal budget this year, Geist said.
Another requirement for clearing camps is that the city must keep personal items for 72 hours before workers can dispose of them. This gives homeless people a chance to reclaim their belongings.
For Corvallis Parks, the property is kept within the grounds of Avery Park before being washed away with the garbage.
Problems that accumulate
It is a challenge to maintain the staffing levels and resources necessary to deal with what amounts to an ongoing problem. Geist said his team of part-timers, whose only job is to remove debris left in the camps, has been reduced from three employees to one.
It is not hard to imagine why it is difficult to retain workers in such an unhealthy role.
“The goal is to have this three-person staff, but we’ve struggled to keep it full,” Geist said. “People come in and work for a day or a week and then decide it’s not for them.”
Additionally, while camps in riparian areas are an obvious concern, park staff must also attend to camps in other areas, further straining already limited resources. This is where volunteer groups particularly concerned about the environmental health of rivers come in to fill the void.
COVID-19 may have exacerbated the problem, some say. The pandemic has led officials to adopt a more passive approach with the homeless, both because of the transmission problems associated with the dispersal of homeless people from their camps and because of the general housing crisis caused by the economic downturn.
Geist said there was some truth to this – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically encouraged local governments at the start of the pandemic to delay cleaning up homeless camps for fear of spreading the novel coronavirus. , for example.
But he refutes the idea that the city has allowed camps and trash to pile up during the pandemic. He pointed to several cleanups led by Corvallis Parks over the past year.
Again, similar efforts were postponed after several members of one camp tested positive, Geist said. “The county found out they were testing there and noticed a number of positive tests came back.”
Not a solution
Volunteers and organizers say that while the city has responded to their requests for help and coordinated responses, the cleanups are really a temporary solution to the larger and more complex epidemic of homelessness in which solutions to more term often come up against a “not in my garden,” or NIMBY, mentality.
“There have been a lot of NIMBY-isms that have prevented proper shelter areas for people who have lost their homes,” Emmons said. “The process of transitioning to affordable housing is difficult. … The system is overwhelmed. There are far more homeless people than there are resources for them.
Even city officials are aware that to truly get to the root of the problem will require community-wide solutions.
“While it’s our responsibility to clean up the parks and address these issues, … it doesn’t address the underlying issue,” Geist said. “It’s just something that’s a complicated issue that’s going to take community-wide efforts to resolve. … Camp cleanup solves the immediate litter problem, but doesn’t solve the larger problems.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to better reflect the story of the Willamette River Guardians program.
Troy Shinn covers health care, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or [email protected] He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.