Near the Crystal Lake sports grounds in Corvallis, just north of the mud bank where the Da Vinci Days once took place on the banks of the Willamette River, there is a great camping spot for the homeless.

Ideal in summer, that is. This time of year is a delayed environmental hazard.

Just last week, water levels were rising rapidly. Bill O’Brien and his friend Jean-Luc Devis, members of a larger group of Corvallis residents and volunteers, were there Monday to pick up trash at an abandoned homeless camp.

The couple had to don wetsuits and slippers to cross the new bog up to their knees. Bagging and putting away the trash left behind, they made their way to the other side, managing to move the remaining thrown items to a higher elevation.

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The group of volunteers try to prevent the rubbish from being washed into the river. From trash to camping gear and even used needles, there is a full line of trash found in abandoned campsites that can be washed away quickly this time of year.

Volunteers normally only target unoccupied camps, but this site still had a man crouching in a tent, trying to stay warm and dry in the pouring rain.

The individual, who declined to speak to reporters on the site, has still not been identified. O’Brien and Devis urged him to go and avoid the danger of the flowing water; the water line was literally rising minute by minute.

“He has to get out of here,” O’Brien said. “If that water rises more tonight, he’s going to be completely inundated with water.” It could be fatal, and he couldn’t get out of here.

O’Brien offered the man a ride and the option of borrowing a wetsuit back to dry land, but the camper refused.

Corvallis Police were called to the scene and tried to convince the man to leave, but he chose to stay anyway. Later that evening, O’Brien returned to see him once more. The man was still there, even though he had moved his tent higher up the banks to stay dry.

Volunteer labor

Homeless advocates and river cleaners say this episode highlights the bigger problem: When people don’t have safe places to camp elsewhere in town, they choose unsafe ones. And riparian flood zones, wetlands adjacent to rivers, are not only problematic for the homeless: the waste they leave behind is an environmental hazard, especially when washed away in the water.

Volunteers like O’Brien and Devis describe mountains of trash that could fill a train car at several sites around Corvallis. O’Brien specifically pointed to a juice container full of used syringes as evidence of the type of hazardous materials they encounter.

His group of very united friends and volunteers are lovers of river recreation, who particularly like kayaking. He’s not just a retired firefighter from Albany, he was part of the agency’s very first water rescue and diving teams.

He is no stranger to the tumultuous waters of the Willamette. Usually, however, the danger is the water itself rather than the debris that might float in it.

It was these environmental concerns that led to the creation of organizations like the Willamette River Guardians program, which began in Eugene in 2014 with the goal of keeping waste out of riparian areas. The group has also worked at Corvallis in recent years.

Although tackling the problem of homelessness is not a main part of the group’s mission, it is indelibly linked to the problem of litter in rivers.

“As the problem of homelessness has increased, we also need to organize an effort to help treat the symptoms,” said Michelle Emmons, Upper Willamette Watershed program coordinator for the group. “By supporting organizations that care for the homeless, we are directly helping to solve our problem of keeping rivers clean. “

Coordinated partnerships

While O’Brien is not on the Willamette River Guardians program, Devis and others who help clean up the river are. The town of Corvallis has a partnership with the organization due to liability issues.

“As a city, we had accountability issues,” said Jude Geist, park supervisor at Corvallis. “There are needles, human waste and various other dangers associated with these camps,… so we weren’t comfortable doing our own volunteer effort.”

There are also jurisdictional considerations. Camps can spring up anywhere from city and county park grounds to rail rights-of-way and places maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Even private companies can see camps forming on their properties.

Because of this mosaic, it can often be easier for a group of volunteers to make arrangements with these various agencies and do the cleanup themselves.

O’Brien and others say they often paid out of pocket to haul the trash to the nearby landfill rather than risking it left in piles and washed up in the river.

Not that the city is not cleaning any camp. Full-time and part-time park crews often pass by and clean up debris left behind by camps that have been advised to leave; the law requires both volunteers and municipal teams to give a few weeks’ notice before emptying the camps.

Corvallis is likely to double its 2020 budget for waste disposal this year, Geist said.

Another requirement to clear the camps is that the city must keep personal items for 72 hours before workers can dispose of them. This gives homeless people a chance to get their property back.

For Corvallis Parks, the property is kept within the Avery Park compound before being washed away with the garbage.

Problems that accumulate

It is a challenge to maintain the staffing levels and resources necessary to deal with what is an ongoing problem. Geist said his team of part-time workers, whose only job is removing debris left in the camps, has grown from three workers to just one.

It is not hard to imagine why it is difficult to retain workers in such an unhealthy role.

“The goal is to have this staff of three, but we struggled to keep it full,” Geist said. “People come to work for a day or a week and then decide it’s not for them. “

Additionally, while camps in riparian areas are an obvious concern, park staff also have to deal with camps in other areas, straining already limited resources. This is where the groups of volunteers, particularly concerned about the environmental health of rivers, come in to stay away.

COVID-19 may have made the problem worse, some say. The pandemic has led authorities to take a more passive approach with the homeless, both because of transmission problems linked to the dispersal of the homeless from their camps and because of the general housing crisis caused by the economic downturn.

Geist said there was some truth to this – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically urged local governments at the start of the pandemic to put the elimination of homeless camps on hold for fear of spreading the new one. coronavirus, for example.

But he refutes the idea that the city allowed camps and trash to pile up during the pandemic. He highlighted several cleanups conducted by Corvallis Parks over the past year.

Then again, similar efforts were postponed after several members of one camp tested positive, Geist said. “The county found out it was testing there and noticed a number of positive tests came back.”

Not a solution

Volunteers and organizers say that while the city has responded to their requests for help and is coordinating responses, the cleanups are truly a temporary solution to the larger and complex epidemic of homelessness in which the solutions will last longer. term often comes up against a “not in my backyard”, or NIMBY, mentality.

“There have been a lot of NIMBY-isms that have prevented suitable areas of shelter for people who have lost their homes,” Emmons said. “The process of transitioning to affordable housing is difficult. … The system is overwhelmed. There are many more homeless people than there are resources for them.

Even city officials realize that getting to the root of the problem will require community-wide solutions.

“While it is our responsibility to clean up the parks and address these issues,… that does not solve the underlying problem,” Geist said. “It’s just something that’s a complicated issue that’s going to require community-wide efforts to resolve. … Camp clean-up solves the immediate waste problem but does not solve the larger problems.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to better reflect the story of the Willamette River Guardians program.

Troy Shinn covers health care, natural resources, and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or at [email protected] He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.

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