Volunteer Lorrie Walker, left, hands a bagged lunch to James Matthews during Salem's 2020 homeless count (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Lorrie Walker trod along an improvised trail near Mill Creek, her rain boots covered in mud.

“Good morning!” she called to a large tent covered in tarps. “We’re doing the homeless count!”

Walker and Pamella Watson, both volunteers, were among dozens of people who spread out across Salem Wednesday in hopes of finding the region’s unsheltered homeless residents. It’s an annual tally that’s required for local agencies to receive federal funding for homeless services.

By mid-afternoon, volunteer teams around Salem had counted nearly 600 people, said Ashley Hamilton, program manager of The ARCHES Project.

Pamella Watson, left, and Lorrie Walker load up at Church at the Park before heading out on the Jan. 29, 2020 homeless count (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The pair worked out of Church at the Park, a south Salem congregation that serves as a community center for many nearby homeless people.

Many volunteers stayed at the church to count people who came in for coffee and food during the day. Walker and Watson hit the streets, drawing on years of experience to seek out spots where people looking to be left alone spend the night.

Their first stop was behind the Lowe’s on Turner Road, an isolated section of Cascade Gateway Park along Mill Creek.

James Matthews, 40, was walking around a tent he shares with his girlfriend when the team showed up. He said they’d been camping along the creek for about a week after another homeless person started a fire at their previous camp.

He agreed to take a short survey even after Walker warned some of the questions were personal.

“So far everyone has answered my questions,” she said with a smile.

“Oh, the pressure’s on now,” Matthews joked back.

James Matthews stands near a tent he shares with his girlfriend along Mill Creek after being surveyed for Salem's 2020 homeless count (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Matthews said he’d been homeless on and off for more than 20 years. This time, it’s been about two and a half years, he said.

He suspects he has a mental illness, he told them, though he’s never been formally diagnosed with anything. He uses drugs, but stopped drinking a few years ago.

A camp across the creek was cleared out recently, he said. Now, the area is home to about a half dozen tents spread out along the other bank, including his.

The trash is the worst part of the camp, he said. Tents in the area were surrounded with an assortment of items – some practical, like a wood stove and propane tanks for cooking, and some apparently random, like houseplants in pots and a screen door lying on its side.

Volunteers Pamella Watson and Lorrie Walker walk past a still-burning fire left by a homeless camper under the Mission Street bridge along Mill Creek. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

It was Walker’s fifth homeless count and Watson’s sixth. The pair has worked together for the past three years, canvassing south Salem.

Walker spent her career at the Oregon State Hospital and said she often saw former patients out on the streets of Salem, which spurred her to do more in her retirement.

“You really don’t know until you work in the different areas how broken the systems are,” she said.

Watson said she got involved in homeless services in Salem after seeing a panhandler with his dog near the Interstate 5 ramp on Mission Street.

She interviewed him the first time she did the count and found out he was a lumber mill worked who’d been injured on the job and wasn’t able to work. He lost his home and lived in his car before it broke down. Then he was on the streets.

“He just one by one took the tumble they take into homelessness,” she said.

She then began visiting homeless camps around Salem to talk to people and offer help.

“I wanted to find out their stories. I wanted to hear how they ended up where they were,” she said.

Other than Matthews, the walk along the creek didn’t produce any interviews. People either weren’t in their tents or didn’t respond to Walker’s calls.

Volunteers Lorrie Walker, left, and Pamella Watson, head under the Mission Street bridge along Mill Creek to survey homeless campers. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

After giving Matthews a bagged lunch and some socks, Walker and Watson drove to nearby parking lots where people often sleep in cars. As they pulled into an alley next to the former Value Village, Mario Lopez, 44, rode a bike in the opposite direction.

Watson rolled down her window and asked Lopez if he happened to be unsheltered. He said he was and pulled over to talk.

Lopez has mostly lived in Salem over the past decade, but was living in Florence over the summer when his roommate assaulted him and broke his hand, he said.

He works as a landscaper and does odd jobs and manual labor, so he couldn’t keep his job with the broken bone. A doctor told him it healed, he said, but it’s continued hurting, so he went to the hospital recently and learned it was still broken. He now wraps it in a bandage.

Lopez said he’s been homeless before, but this is his first time without a car.

“It makes a big difference,” he said.

When Walker asked if he had any mental illnesses, he laughed and said he’d never been diagnosed. But his father was a cocaine dealer, so it wouldn’t surprise him if he has some lingering issues from the environment he grew up in, he said.

“I don’t think I’m normal normal, but I don’t think I’m crazy either,” he said with a laugh.

Volunterr Pamella Watson surveys a shopping cart collection at a homeless camp along Mill Creek in Cascades Gateway Park during the 2020 homeless count (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Lopez said lost his license after being ticketed multiple times for not having insurance, which he said he couldn’t afford. Not driving wasn’t an option because he had to get to work.

“I have to eat,” he said. After he didn’t pay those tickets, he lost his car too.

Still, Lopez was optimistic. He wants to work, he said, which isn’t the case for everyone he meets on the streets.

He’s confident he’ll be able to find something once his hand heals. He’s also hoping for a crime victim payment that would allow him pay for a rental or motel room.

“I’ll be okay. I’m just having a hard time right now, but I’ll be fine,” he said.

A drizzle had started and cold wind was picking up as the pair finished talking to Lopez. They hopped back in the car, driving on to parking lots and alleys they know well in search of more people to count.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.