Around 8 a.m. on Sept. 1, Salem city crews made their way down a flight of stairs built by residents of homeless camps on an embankment near River Road City Park.
It’s the first major assignment for a new city team of police and public works employees that’s intended to get homeless Salemites connected with services and keep the park safe.
The seven-person Salem Outreach and Livability Services team includes coordinator Jacob Snell — who works out of the city manager’s office — as well as two sworn Salem Police Department officers, one public works coordinator and three sanitation workers.
The Salem City Council approved initial funding for the program in March and will spend about $1.1 million on the team this year. That money comes from a portion of a state grant to provide sheltering services.
Members of the team regularly go door-knocking at sites where they expect homeless people will be staying. City spokesman John Winn said they’re not there to evict, arrest or ticket people who are camping. Instead, they’ll ask what people need and point them to services, as well as keep the area clean by removing paraphernalia and other hazardous items.
“The goal is to get them into more stable housing,” Winn said.
In working with community organizations, Winn said the city has a found referrals to ARCHES Inn, Union Gospel Mission of Salem and Safe Sleep United Shelter for Women successful.
“However, we do recognize there are gaps for couples and families, and various other things that could keep someone from one of those locations. Housing and shelter is not a static situation, there are ebbs and flows in availability. As such, we work as closely as we can to find the right place for the right person,” he said in an email. “There is a significant shortage of not only transitional housing, but affordable long-term housing as well. Because no two people have the same situation, outreach coordinators and our team work with individuals to see if one of the available options works for them.”
The morning of Sept. 1, he said Officer Kevin Ramirez contacted Northwest Human Services because he felt they could help a few people who were staying at River Road City Park.
But that day, the crew was also there to clear out the encampment.
The site sat down a steep embankment along the edge of the Willamette River. Winn said the camps have been flooded out during high waters, which is dangerous for people staying there and pulls items into the river.
Using a winch, city crews hauled a shopping cart and bags from the site, scattered with cardboard, pillows, tarp and other belongings left behind.
The city of Salem posted notices around the area seven to ten days before that there would be a cleanup at the site, according to Winn.
City spokesman Trevor Smith said seven people were living there over a week prior, with most cleared out by the morning of the sweep.
Outreach workers with Northwest Human Services went to the camp that day prior to any work being done and made contact with people staying at the park.
The embankment floods every year, Smith said, and how often depends on the winter.
Winn said even if there’s heavy rain in Eugene, water can rise in Salem.
In May, he said city crews pulled “bags upon bags” of waste and debris out of the river after the camps were flooded.
“People were living in submerged water,” Winn said.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said reasons given by the city for the recent sweep are accurate.
“But they’re also true of every other homeless camp along the river,” Jones said.
City sweeps of homeless camps, he said, are typically complaint-driven.
There were three complaints about the encampment submitted through a form on the city’s website since May, Winn said. Those don’t include other complaints that could’ve been made through calls to the police non-emergency line, the city manager or mayor’s office, or public works.
Jones said there was a considerable increase in homeless camping along the river through the spring and summer, which eventually spilled into River Road City Park. There has also been more car camping in the parking lot of the park.
The city allowed homeless people to camp for much of the pandemic at two Salem parks — providing some stability for camp residents for over a year. But city officials said in May 2021 they would eventually end such camping.
“My position has always been, unless there’s a complaint-driven reason to remove a camp, they should generally be left alone,” Jones said. “You’re removing camps, people are moving to other areas, they’re establishing new camps — or you move them out of there, they come back in. It’s a lot of chasing with very little productivity in the end.”
He said if there is ever drug trafficking, sex trafficking or other serious criminal activity at a camp, then some action is needed.
“But you know, if it’s just folks that are camping there so that they could have close proximity to the Fred Meyer, I mean, that kind of thing is gonna go on until we make some considerable reductions in the unsheltered population,” he said.
The River Road City Park encampment was well-hidden from most people visiting the park.
“It’s hard to get to, it’s hard to get things out of,” said Snell.
Winn said the function of the officers, who are dedicated full time to the team, is to provide outreach and build relationships. Officers have brought donuts to camps, which is often what gets conversations started.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of, ‘I just really need some water today,’” he said.
But officers are also present when camps are swept.
For the clients, they’re gonna struggle to tell the difference between those two activities,” Jones said. “So we just don’t know yet.”
Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.
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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.