Homeless debate spreads to WL
It's illegal. It's dangerous. It infuriates some people, but for thousands of Oregonians, living around or under major highways is a reality.
Statistics from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness revealed that 14,476 people in Oregon were homeless on any given day in 2018; 1,363 of them were veterans; 1,309 of them were between the ages of 18 and 24.
In 2018, Oregon boasted the second highest rate of homeless people without shelter, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Of the 14,476 homeless people in Oregon last year, 8,925 lived without shelter. Only California had a higher rate of unsheltered homeless people.
These homeless people seek some way to protect themselves from cold and severe weather. Often times beneath freeway overpasses, like the Abernathy Bridge, is their best option.
Last week, a small pop-up homeless camp under the Abernathy Bridge sparked a frenzy of debate on the West Linn Community Page on Facebook.
"Let's help them, not move them," one commenter wrote.
But others argued that homeless people often aren't interested in help from social services.
"I know people who deal with transient camps throughout the county and in Portland, and not many of these homeless are just 'down-on-their-luck' displaced people. There's a bigger problem at hand, and a drug culture associated with most of the transient camps here," another comment said. "Mental health and addiction are large problems, that won't be solved by just letting people live in our parks."
Several people called West Linn Police, who called the Oregon Department of Transportation, and within a few days, the camp was gone and all that could be found under the bridge was the usual graffiti and a one or two pieces of litter.
When homeless people living on ODOT property are reported, ODOT usually posts "no trespassing" signs that state the people have a certain number of days to leave. In 2017 ODOT posted over 800 of these signs, ODOT Public Information Officer Don Hamilton said, adding that they often repeatedly return to certain spots that are particularly attractive. A report from ODOT states that the agency spent $1.8 million cleaning up illegal camping across the state from July 2017 through June 2018, which is nearly twice the amount spent the previous year.
A call to WLPD last Tuesday about a man in camping gear near the wooded area around River Street led an officer to check the area, where he found the man packing up his tent. The man told the officer he was headed back to Portland, according to police records.
"We can't force people to go. We're not a police agency. We can clean up public property that ODOT is responsible for, which is what this is," Hamilton said of the Abernathy Bridge situation. "We clean up these sites. We take belongings that are left behind and will store them and people can come pick them up. We then remove garbage."
Hamilton remarked how complex dealing with the homeless can be. On one hand, people camping around highways can cause a whole host of problems for drivers, nearby residents and even endanger themselves he said, but they are also human.
"They (ODOT's clean up crews) see a lot of people at the worst periods of their lives, when people are in very bad conditions. We also see a lot of neighbors who have a lot of problems with this, with cleanliness, with leftover needles, human waste, crime increases in some of these locations," Hamilton said. "It's very easy to understand the concerns of the neighbors too. We have to try and balance, properly, looking out for the rights of these people and making sure that the residents of these areas have their concerns addressed as well."
He noted that one of ODOT's primary concerns with homeless people staying around highways is safety.
"For one thing, we've had these illegal campers sometimes out running around on the freeways at night, which is dangerous and illegal," he said. "Ten years ago, we had a car spin off the road and kill a camper in a sleeping bag along 405."
But forcing campers out of one dangerous and illegal area does not stop them from moving to another dangerous or illegal area.
Some public areas though, are not necessarily illegal for homeless people to occupy. Homeless people have the right to be on public land, as long as they are not publicly drunk, naked, defecating or engaged in some other illegal activity.
West Linn Police Chief Terry Kruger said a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this past spring gave homeless people the right to sit, sleep or lie in the public right of way.
"In a nutshell what the ruling says is that you cannot criminalize the state of homelessness and so if someone doesn't have other option, you can't make it illegal for them to stay on a sidewalk or on public property," Kruger said.
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