By Matthew Taylor
Residents of a local homeless camp were forced to move last week after the Oregon State Department of Transportation posted signs warning individuals residing in the area to remove personal belongings ahead of a planned sweep later in the month.
The camp, which was located in downtown Salem, consisted of approximately 25 tents and was home to dozens.
“We’ve got about 50 – 50 people,” said one man living there said in an interview with KPTV. “Right now everyone is kind of sad and quiet. Nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
The notices appeared on March 6, and were accompanied by warnings by city and state officials who went tent to tent, notifying residents that they had ten days to leave the camp with all of their personal belongings.
This most recent removal came just one month after a similar sweep cleared another homeless camp under a Highway 22 bridge. That removal, which occurred just ahead of an annual nationwide count of homeless populations, caused significant frustration amongst advocates. The count provides the federal government with information which is used to address the issue of homelessness.
Local officials refuted the notion that the Jan. 26 sweep had anything to do with the count, stating instead that they have primarily been prompted by complaints by local residents and businesses, who consider the camps to be both a health and safety hazard and a nuisance.
“You have to walk through this gauntlet that would be rather intimidating, and there’s garbage and horrible smells,” said local resident JP Jones in an interview with KPTV. “It’s certainly not a family environment on that bridge. I have a great heart for the people there and their needs, but they need to be somewhere else.” Jones reportedly used to frequent the waterfront path that the camp sat near, but stopped when it appeared.
These efforts are part of a larger push in cities across the region to eliminate homeless camps. Cities such as Seattle and Portland have come under intense criticism for their policies regarding homeless populations, with some claiming the cities are too lenient and others contending that the policies are excessively harsh.
One major issue aside from comfortability that proponents of clearing the camps have cited is the health safety risks that the camps pose. In Seattle, a series of infectious disease outbreaks have prompted more calls for both clearing the camps and increasing the capacity of city homeless shelters.
Simultaneously, many of the methods used by cities to clear the camps and prevent new ones from appearing elsewhere have come under fire recently, with some contending these cities essentially criminalizing homelessness.
“The solution to homelessness is not going to be achieved through making life more miserable for people that are struggling,” said Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien, referencing the city’s use of fences and bike racks to discourage camping.
As the homelessness crisis continues to spread and garner attention nationwide, the need for a humane and viable solution will only increase. How cities respond under this pressure will have widespread and long lasting impacts.