For some, Cascades Gateway Park was a home long before the pandemic

Eugene and Julie Steele Ensinger gather under the shade of a tree at Cascades Gateway Park on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021, one day after vehicles were towed away. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Eugene Ensinger surveyed the parking lot at Cascades Gateway Park Wednesday, where a lone fifth wheel stood where there were once dozens of RVs and trailers.

Piles of garbage were scattered around the parking area while a few people packed up their belongings.

“This here is not a tragedy, I’m glad everyone’s out,” Ensinger said, referring to cars and RVs being tagged and towed out of the parking lot.

But with an impending park closure, he wonders what that will mean for people like him who have lived in the park for years. Most didn’t know what was next or where they planned to go if they were forced out.

During the pandemic, the city of Salem allowed people to camp in Cascades Gateway Park and vehicles and trailers to stay overnight in the parking lot in an effort to limit the spread of Covid. The goal was to keep unhoused people, many of whom have underlying health issues, from crowding into shelters where the virus could spread more easily.

On Thursday, Aug. 19 the city is closing the 100-acre park in southeast Salem for a few months to grade and re-gravel the parking lot and clean up trash. People have been camping in the wooded areas of the park, tucked out of view while some moved into the grassy fields adjacent to the dog park when the park flooded in December.

A single trailer home remains in the parking lot at Cascades Gateway Park on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Ensinger and his wife have lived in the park area for about five years. They said city sweeps were a regular occurrence each year before the Oregon State Fair. Covid exploded the number of people living in the park.

He said when cars and trailers began filling in the parking lot the crime rate tripled.

In May, a Salem man was charged with setting fire to a storage facility next to Cascades Gateway Park, causing $1 million in damage with a flare gun police said he stole from Walmart.

“They blame the homeless and we just happen to be that way. We’re locals and the people there were passing through,” Ensinger said.

The pair said out in the camps, they govern themselves but “when it gets like this it gets out of hand.”

Frank Sheridan organizes his belongings at Cascades Gateway Park on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Nearly a dozen vehicles or trailers were impounded before the closure, three were towed to another location and more than 70 left on their own, according to Emily DuPlessis-Enders, city spokeswoman.

She said some of the people who left went to area shelters, while others who weren’t originally from Salem indicated they would be moving elsewhere.

“People were staying at the park after they heard it was open for overnight camping and had traveled to stay there,” she said. “Many people left on their own when they heard the park was going to be closed.”

DuPlessis-Enders said it could take the city up to a year to restore the park to a level that would be considered rejuvenated.

Salem has set aside $300,000 to clean both Cascades Gateway Park and Wallace Marine Park where camping was allowed during the pandemic. DuPlessis-Enders said the city doesn’t currently know how much cleanups will cost in each park, but once the park is closed, park crews will be able to assess the extent of the damage.

All the park entrances, including the main gate, will be closed. Salem police officers will patrol the area, a city news release said.

DuPlessis-Enders said police will look out for anyone violating the closure.

“If that does occur the first step is always to try to make contact and let that person know of the change and of the park closure. The last resort would be a citation,” she said.

She said the city doesn’t want to support any unmanaged camping or overnight camping situations in the future.

“The model we’ve set up since unwinding the park camping program has been much more positive and supportive for individuals that are experiencing homelessness. So, the city wants to continue to support that model,” she said. 

A dog overlooks the parking lot at Cascades Gateway Park after vehicles were towed out the previous day, on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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

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