“Having to be moved like cattle is ridiculous.” Hundreds ponder what’s next as city-sanctioned homeless camping is expected to end

Narissa Dieterich and Anthony Mignogna play with a puppy at their campsite in Wallace Marine Park on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Confusion was in the air at two Salem parks Tuesday and Wednesday morning.

Since March of last year, the city of Salem had allowed camping in Wallace Marine Park and Cascades Gateway Parks to prevent the spread of Covid among the city’s homeless population. The arrangement gave hundreds of houseless people a rare modicum of stability. Now, questions swirl in minds of camp residents.

When were police coming to sweep the camps? Was the city’s code enforcement going to tag cars to be towed? Would people be asked to camp further back, out of sight?

City officials have said ending camping at the parks will be a gradual process but haven’t provided a timeline or plan for how. The goal was to end camping as other shelter options came available. Many of those options won’t be open for months.

The most detail for the plan came during a city council meeting last week, when the city’s homelessness liaison, Gretchen Bennett, said the city would take a zone-by-zone approach to clearing the parks and picking up garbage.

Bennett told Salem Reporter the city is asking some people camping in Wallace Marine Park to leave this week but doesn’t have a date for when vehicles need to move.

“We strive to see what the alternative shelter locations and safe park (for vehicle) locations there are,” she said in a text message.

The entire parking lot at Cascades Gateway Park was filled with cars and RVs Tuesday morning, some containing people’s clothes, food and sleeping gear and others with people resting in the hot sun.

With the end of city-sanctioned camping imminent, Salem Reporter talked to a dozen unsheltered people in both parks. They described a mix of anger and sadness.

Despite a statewide eviction moratorium, some described ending up on the street after roommates moved out or taking offers of cash to vacate previous living situations.

Julie Steele-Ensinger stands near a parking area on Wednesday, June 2, 2021 at Cascades Gateway Park. She and her husband have been living in the park and try to help by cleaning up common areas. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Julie Steele-Ensinger and her husband Eugene were picking up trash at Cascades Gateway Park on Wednesday morning, using a Jeep Wrangler to push a leather massage chair down the road toward two blue dumpsters which were surrounded by shopping carts full of garbage. They said people who don’t reside in the camps have been dumping items, pointing to a nearby washing machine as evidence.

The couple has been homeless for nine years, struggling to get housing while “going through the hoops” required to receive services while missing appointments.

Steele-Ensinger said they’re self-sufficient at this point. They said if they were offered a place to stay, they would give it up to someone more in need.

“It breaks my heart,” she said of everyone being told to leave the park. “It’s sad that we’re the scourge of the city.”

Jamie Johnson, 45, put it more bluntly.

“Having to be moved like cattle is ridiculous,” she said.

Many said the new shelter options coming online were nowhere near enough to help more than 1,000 unsheltered people in Marion and Polk counties.

If the Salem City Council approves funding requests for three new managed camps run by Church at the Park and for a portion of the cost of buying a motel to be turned into a shelter that will add approximately 290 additional shelter beds to Salem’s capacity.

That still leaves hundreds without a place to go.

Jamie Barquest said she lost her job working at a high school during Covid and lost her housing. She was previously sharing an apartment with her partner and his mother. They could no longer afford housing after his mother moved out of state and stopped paying rent. The landlord offered them $300 to move out. They took the offer.

“We never would have thought we would have been here,” she said while sitting near the base of the pedestrian bridge at Wallace Marine Park.

On Tuesday she said she was just “going with the flow,” unsure of where to go next.

Barquest said she’s had her things stolen multiple times, including letters from her mother and sister, and was reduced to a grocery bag’s-worth of clothing.

“I’ve had one hot shower in four months,” she said.

Mike Spears was at Wallace Marine Park Tuesday near the river that had flooded campsites months earlier. He said he found a place to live in someone’s basement after three years on the street.

Now he’s hoping the woman who offered him a place to stay will make good on the offer.

Michael Spears, 29, talks with a member of Be Bold Street Ministry while balancing a kitten on his shoulder near his campsite at Wallace Marine Park on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Narissa Dieterich, 48, has been homeless for more than 11 years.

She said when camping was allowed at Wallace Marine Park 14 months ago, the number of unsheltered people there ballooned from 40 to 300.

“We can’t manage the same as we used to. It looks way worse than it did,” she said.

She was weighing her options of where she could go. A friend had property in southern Oregon, but it didn’t have a well and was miles from the nearest store, she said.

She also didn’t want to be that far from her family in Salem.

“There’s nowhere left to go. It feels like they’re just corralling us. I just want my freedom,” Dieterich said. 

Ken Patterson, of Recovery Outreach Community Center, hands a bag of bottled water to Matt Maceira, of Be Bold Street Ministries to distribute to homeless campers on Tuesday, June 1, 2021 at Wallace Marine Park. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Related coverage: Managed camps and new shelter could be coming online soon as parks camping ends

Camping in Salem parks could end after Monday night council vote. But questions remain over timeline

As hundreds will be kicked out of city parks, a question remains: where will they go?

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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