Homeless encampment crash could be “turning point” in Salem’s response to homelessness, advocates say

Around noon Monday, flowers, a cross and a tray of candles sat beside a tree on the landscaped strip where a car crashed through a homeless camp early Sunday. Police say four people died. (Ardeshir Tabrizian/Salem Reporter)

Nathan Rose heard two loud thuds early Sunday morning just before a sports coupe drove through the downtown roadside encampment where he was staying at the intersection of Northeast Front Street and state Highway 99 East in Salem.

Rose said there were at least a dozen people living in the camp at the time. According to the Salem Police Department, four were killed in the crash and two more injured.

Enrique Rodriguez, Jr., 24, was charged Monday with four counts of first-degree manslaughter, two counts of second-degree assault and driving under the influence in Marion County Circuit Court.

The charges allege Rodriguez drove with at least a 0.15 blood-alcohol level, nearly double the legal limit. Police said Sunday they believed alcohol contributed to the crash but didn’t initially include driving under the influence in the list of charges for which he was arrested.

Salem police in a news release Monday afternoon identified those killed in the crash as Jowand Beck, 24, Luke Kagey, 21, Joe Posada III, 54, and Rochelle Zamacona, 29. Two more people in the camp, 43-year-old Derrick Hart and 18-year-old Savaanah Miller, remained hospitalized.

The deaths made national news and renewed discussion in Salem about how the city and other agencies respond to homelessness.

One of the people injured in the crash, 43-year-old Derrick Hart, had been living in a homeless encampment at Marion Square Park before city crews and police swept the camp March 3. City leaders acknowledged in a statement ahead of that sweep that the city currently lacks enough shelter beds and housing options for everyone living on the streets.

Derrick Hart organizes his possessions as he prepares to move them out of Marion Square Park during the eviction of a homeless encampment at the park on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Still, city and state officials said Monday morning they would continue with plans to sweep Salem homeless camps, including the camp where the crash occurred.

The patch of grass and trees next to the Front Street railroad tracks is on state Department of Transportation property. A sweep planned for Wednesday will still take place, department spokeswoman Angela Beers Seydel said. She said the transportation department posted notice to vacate the area March 17 and coordinates with the city to do outreach.

“As in all previous actions like this, folks affected will be offered alternative sheltering, services and programs. Sunday’s event is likely to add some urgency to getting campers (a)way from this dangerous traffic area,” said Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett in an email.

The department posted notice to vacate a total of 16 locations along Front Street, Marion Street and Center Street, including the encampment where the crash took place, on March 17, Beers Seydel said. This week’s sweep will be the fourth time since October the transportation department has removed homeless people and their belongings from the area.

“Our properties are not set up for camping and many of these locations are dangerous and so it’s what we have to do at this point, but it’s also indicative of why we work with our community partners in looking at it as a societal issue,” Beers Seydel said.

City leaders are also moving forward with a planned “clean up” at Wallace Marine Park Thursday, city spokeswoman Kathy Ursprung said Monday morning. The west Salem park was one of two where city leaders allowed homeless people to camp for much of the pandemic before ending the exception last year.

According to the city website, the March 31 sweep will include working with a towing company to remove RVs and vehicles.

“Due to public health concerns of conditions at Wallace Marine Park, we will continue with plans to clean areas in the park that we’ve been forecasting for several weeks,” Ursprung said in an email. “We provide notice of planned cleanings many days in advance and work with our partners to connect people to available services before and during cleaning.”

Josh Lair, the chief operating officer for Be Bold Street Ministries, said that organization and others serving homeless Salem residents went out Monday morning to talk to about 50 people camping nearby and helping them process the crash and deaths.

Lair said outreach workers were “just talking to them about how they’re feeling, how scary it was, how some of the places that they’re camping, that’s a reality.” He said he and others were encouraging people not to camp downtown, and said local law enforcement have tried to move people from dangerous locations including the Front Street camp prior to the crash.

“Camping is not legal, there’s not managed campsites outside of the micro-shelters so it’s an interesting dynamic. I definitely believe that camping downtown on the streets is not the answer. It’s completely unsafe, people are constantly almost getting hit by cars. Folks are getting hit by cars. It’s not safe. I don’t believe that anybody should be camping downtown,” he said. 

Lair said local agencies are doing everything they can to help unsheltered people get connected to services.

“Everybody wants to say everybody’s failing, the city is failing. I don’t believe that’s a fair statement,” he said. He said Salemites concerned about the deaths should look for ways to support organizations already engaging homeless people and working with them.

Around noon Monday, flowers, a cross and a tray of candles sat beside a tree on the landscaped strip where the car crashed. Workers with Northwest Human Services’ Street Outreach Team and Church at the Park stopped by the camp to ask if anybody needed hygiene kits or other items.

April Pfeifer, who currently lives in the encampment, sorts through belongings that were displaced following a vehicle crash which left four dead and two hospitalized at a homeless encampment near Front and Division Streets on Sunday, March 27. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said the deaths mark a turning point for how state and local leaders regulate homeless camps.

He said Monday morning that “state-level leaders” across Oregon have contacted his agency asking how they can help and what is needed to prevent such an incident in the future.

“I think it’s one of those moments where there was the practice before, and then there will be the practice after,” he said.

Jones said he expects to see state legislators during the 2023 session will consider requiring cities and counties to set aside property for managed or unmanaged camping.

“The problem with managed camping, most directly, is that it is incredibly expensive in terms of a return on investment, and the budget just isn’t there to do it on a mass scale that would be necessary to do it here or in Portland,” he said.

Jones said he has kept a “loose count” of deaths of homeless people in the Salem area in the past two years, which totals around 50.

“Some of them died in the hospital. Some of them went in for surgery and didn’t make it. A handful of them that were recently housed passed away in housing, some died outside, some were struck by cars, some died of drug overdoses, (we) lost a couple in the heat dome event,” he said.”

Hart and Miller were taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries following the crash. Both were in “fair” condition as of Monday afternoon, Salem Health spokeswoman Lisa Wood said. Fair means a patient’s vital signs are stable and within normal limits, and the patient is conscious and alert but may have pain or minor complications.

 Salem City Councilor Vanessa Nordyke told Salem Reporter Monday that she has heard people in the community call for mental health services and grievance counseling to be provided to the survivors, and renewed calls for a mobile crisis unit separate from police.

Nordyke has also heard calls for a public vigil, as well as for more shelter and housing. “This tragedy is why we need a roof over every head,” she said in an email.

She said she has heard some blame those killed or injured in the crash for camping on state property.  “Blaming the victims is completely unacceptable and morally reprehensible. That is not who we are. I am glad to hear that the driver has been arrested. May he be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The victims, the survivors, and the entire Salem community, demand justice,” she said.

Councilor Jackie Leung said she has heard from several homeless advocates and others that city officials “need to do more and do better.” She said she hopes councilors at their meeting Monday evening discuss ways they can continue supporting the community.

“We’re doing what we can with what little resources we have, but we also need support from the county and the state,” she said in a voicemail Monday.

Councilor Jose Gonzalez in an email said he has heard both shock and people saying it was “bound” to happen.

“Long-term the ‘industry’ helping our unsheltered neighbors needs to be honest with them that we can’t help everyone, long waiting lists are just a death sentence, that is why many want to hang around.  I would do the exact same thing if I was in their position,” he wrote. “We can’t let them remain sleeping on our streets but that’s easier said than done.”


UPDATE: Man arrested after crash that killed four in Salem homeless camp, police say

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053. Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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