NEWS

'Outcasts in society': Salem's unhoused population continues to be shuffled around

Whitney Woodworth Virginia Barreda
Salem Statesman Journal

Amid concerns about trash, crime and park access, hundreds of unsheltered individuals allowed to live in Salem parks and along the highway during the pandemic have been ousted from encampments over the past few months.

With the population now scattered across the city, issues are arising.

Camps have been illegally set up on private property and campers are again being pushed to move along. Advocacy groups are having trouble accessing those most in need of services. The change comes at a time when certain services are more available than ever. 

For more than a year, a large portion of the more than 1,500 people living outdoors gathered at sites like Cascades Gateway Park, Wallace Marine Park and under Market Street overpass on Interstate 5.

A "No Vacancy" sign is posted by residents of the unsheltered community living near Portland Road NE and Lancaster Drive NE on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 in Salem, Ore. The privately-owned land has seen an influx in campers over the past few months.

City officials lifted park camping restrictions as part of COVID-19 mitigation efforts, but then reinstated the bans June 1. 

That left the 300 to 500 people who had called the parks home for months searching for a new spot to shelter from the elements, pitch their tent or park their RV —often with only a few days' notice.

"I never understood homelessness before I became homeless. I don't think many people would," Michelle Ryan, who is now living on private property in the woods off Portland Road NE, said. "I thought it was choices. But it's not necessarily a choice as much as it is a curse. We're stuck in this. There's no help. We're outcasts in society."

Homeless sweeps:

Stephen Goins, transitional program director for Northwest Human Services, said the camps temporarily provided a means for providers to conduct strategic outreach and build relationships.

"Although the camps were not permanent solutions, and certainly not adequate for long-term human habitation, we suspect they helped insulate our homeless neighbors from possible COVID-19 transmission,"  he said. "They also provided a sense of home, and a moment of stability."

Gretchen Bennett, city homelessness liaison, said the city is getting more reports of smaller encampments in neighborhoods, along streets like Sunnyview Road NE and Lancaster Road NE and on undeveloped private property.

Service providers, like those with pastor DJ Vincent's Church at the Park, are now visiting sites drawn from a shared list of 40 to 50 "hotspot" locations for homeless outreach. 

The church still provides regular services like food boxes and laundry services at its location near Cascades Gateway Park at 2410 Turner Road SE, but Vincent said he's seen a marked decrease in some of the daily services and people have left the park. 

"Through a lot of the pandemic, our team was looking at five spots throughout the city," he said. "They were really congregating, for better or worse, and now it's ... there's a narrative of dispersement of where those camps are." 

The list of hotspots now includes sites throughout the Mid-Valley, including near businesses like Walmart in South Salem, parks like Keizer Rapids, wooded areas and parking lots. 

A growing camp in the woods

Most recently, dozens of unsheltered individuals have relocated to a wooded area off Portland Road NE near the Kale Street intersection.

Multiple people told the Statesman Journal they came to the area after being shuffled out of downtown Salem, under the Interstate 5 overpass and Cascades Gateway City Park. 

Larry Lassen and Thomas Rozell own the vacant 8.5-acre property at 4885 Portland Road, according to Marion County Assessor's Office property records.

The woods, crammed with dozens of tents, tarps, cars and RVs, are connected by thin, winding dirt trails. The number of residents is concealed by a line of trees near the sidewalk near the busy road. A long, chain-linked fence divides the woods from a neighboring property behind it. 

A poster-board sign at the front of the camp reads: "Warning!! There is no vacancy! If you don’t live here don’t drive in if you are a guest they are to park across the street or police will be contacted." 

Michelle Ryan lives at a camp near Portland Road Northeast and Lancaster Drive NE on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 in Salem, Ore. Ryan and her boyfriend moved to the camp with their cats about three weeks ago.

Ryan and her boyfriend moved to the camp about three weeks ago. They've been living in their van parked on the edge of the property with their two cats, Junebug and Blue.

Ryan became homeless about a year after losing her job and combating depression in 2016. At that time, she lost connection with her ex-husband and two children.

Since then, she and her boyfriend have shifted from one temporary shelter or camp to the next. 

Ryan said over the past four years, she's camped on Fisher Road, off Mission Street near Mill Creek and at Cascades Gateway. She also lived for about four months at the Pallet shelter, a temporary, tiny-home community on the city-owned property also on Portland Road.

The Portland Road camp, which neighbors the Chemawa Indian School, is mostly quiet, Ryan said. But she saidhomeless individuals are in dire need of community resources to provide things such as a place to wash their hands and shower, as well as waste services. 

"Nobody cares about us," she said. "But we care. Sometimes it's discouraging. We don't get showers — hygiene (services) would be real(sic) good. I've tried to stay positive hoping that something will change."

Natalie Schlosser stands near the shelter she built at a homeless encampment near Portland Road NE and Lancaster Drive NE on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 in Salem, Ore.

Natalie Schlosser and her dog have spent the past three years between the camp and woods behind Happy Jing Restaurant and Bar. 

Schlosser built a two-story treehouse out of plywood on the property. She said the treehouse took her about nine months to build and is an ongoing project. 

Schlosser refers to herself as one of the "originals" — a group of about six or seven people who have been camping on the property for years. She said the place was a lot quieter and cleaner before more people started moving in with RVs and cars in recent months.

"Beforehand, it was just campers," Schlosser said. "We watch out for each other. We are homeless and we help each other out." 

Ryan, Schlosser and other campers expressed concern over the growing number of campers and accumulating trash. Schlosser said she helps clean up the area when she can. 

"If we ruin (the camp) and we're out again, then where do we go? That's what scares me," Ryan said. 

'Where are we supposed to go?'

After Statesman Journal reporters spent Thursday afternoon speaking to campers, Ryan said her concerns were realized. Campers received a 72-hour notice Friday to vacate the property.

Additionally, no trespassing signs began appearing Thursday around the camp and more appeared on trees Friday. By Sunday, Ryan said many of them were taken down, but she was unsure by whom.

Employees from Knight Security, a private security firm, also went around the property to notify campers they had to clear out, Ryan said.

"I told the (security) guy, 'Where are we supposed to go? Where are the advocates to help us out? Why are you out here by yourself not offering any resources?'" she said.

Shelters line a pathway constructed with sticks toward the back of a homeless camp near Portland Road NE and Lancaster Drive NE on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021 in Salem, Ore.

Despite some confusion from the campers about whether camping was allowed at the site, co-owner Lassen told the Statesman Journal that he had never given permission for people to live at the site. He then confirmed he was working with Knight Security and Salem Police to clear the location. 

Lassen, who has co-owned the property for about 40 years, said this isn’t the first time people have camped on the property. He’s called police to clear the camps and professional services to do about two or three clean-ups of the property over the past four or five years. 

The number of people flocking to the camp has swelled over the past few months, making it more challenging to clear, he said. 

This time, he said, once police clear the camp, security crews will be monitoring the property to ensure campers don't return. Lassen, who lives in John Day, said he's getting ready to sell the property. 

As of Tuesday afternoon, it didn't appear as if most of the campers had left, or even begun to pack up.

'Need all over the place'

Bennett said the city fields calls from neighbors typically wanting welfare checks on those living unsheltered.

"We can assist ultimately people with trespass enforcement, but we can also assist with connection to service navigators who can help connect the people with service resources and help positively make a transition," she said. 

Finding more housing options remains the top focus for the city, Bennett added.

Many people living unsheltered are in survival mode and tend to focus on meeting their next immediate need instead of addressing health concerns, especially when they are constantly being shuffled around.

Goins said Northwest Human Services has had an uptick in calls to the crisis specialists, indicating a high need for support and connection in the community.

"With people scattered, it makes it harder to initiate, deliver and follow up on healthcare needs," he said.

Goins said their outreach team will continue to have a presence on the streets, working collaboratively with other agencies to keep an eye on emerging health issues, and screen for COVID-19.

Every Wednesday, the HOAP Day Center is offering walk-in health visits for the unsheltered. Vaccinations are accessible then, and every day of the week. 

Additionally, the NWHS Bus continues to pick up individuals from area shelters and programs to transport them to the West Salem Clinic for immediate care.

Keeping up with services:As homeless camps close, advocacy groups must adjust to maintain services

Vincent said it feels like the need in the community has never been higher.

His organization's safe parking program operates parking sites for about 50 vehicles and 100 people. After about 50 vehicles were dispersed from Cascades Gateway Park, their waiting list for the Safe Parking Network reached a high of 135 people.

"We are actively recruiting businesses and churches to open up more sites," he said. "The community is beginning to see the need all over the place."

He and Bennett pointed to other promising developments on the horizon: expanded capacity at Salem's Union Gospel Mission; a new family-centric shelter with at least 60 beds opening on 3737 Portland Road NE later this month; a new navigation center opening that could have 35 to 90 beds; and an 80-room motel set to open soon as transitional housing. 

Despite the need, Vincent said the new efforts to provide services in the Salem area give him hope. 

"If we look back three years ago ... there was no safe parking program, there was no opportunity for sheltering pods, there was no hotel program t, there was no navigation center being opened up, there were less supportive housing beds," he said.

"We are trending in the right direction in terms of a city and community and nonprofit response to the challenges of homelessness in major ways, very significant ways."

More:A new homeless shelter is opening in north Salem. How it plans to address neighbor concerns

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, also pointed to these efforts. 

"I'm anxious and hopeful at the same time," Jones said. "On the one hand, we have more resources on the city's side of the equation than we've ever had."

But on the other hand, a significant portion of state and federal funds is being funneled into preventing evictions, not helping the chronically homeless, he added.

And despite the increase in services in cities like Salem, rural areas in Polk and Marion counties could see fewer services due to funding cuts. 

"We do have more people now than before," Jones said. "They are harder to see because they are scattered after the breakup of Wallace and Cascades."

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodworth@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-910-6616 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth.

Virginia Barreda is the breaking news, public safety and courts reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at 503-910-6982 or at vbarreda@statesmanjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @vbarreda2.