Volunteers along the Willamette pick up trash, confront environmental issues — and homelessness | Local

Near Crystal Lake Sports Fields in Corvallis, just north of the mud bank where Da Vinci Days once was held on the banks of the Willamette River, there’s an ideal camping spot for the unhoused.

Ideal in the summer, that is. This time of the year, it’s a ticking environmental hazard.

Just this past week, the 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 on Monday picking up trash at an abandoned encampment for the homeless.

The pair had to put on wetsuits and booties to traverse the new-just-that-day, knee-deep bog. Bagging and binning the garbage left behind, they made it to the other side, successful in the quest to move the remaining discarded items to a higher elevation.

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The group of volunteers tries to keep the waste from being swept out into the river. From garbage to camping equipment and even used needles, there’s a full spectrum of waste found at abandoned campsites which can wash away quickly this time of year.

The volunteers normally only target unoccupied camps, but this site still had one man hunkering down in a tent, trying to stay warm and dry in the pelting rain.

The individual, who declined to talk to reporters at the site, remains unidentified. O’Brien and Devis urged him to leave and avoid the danger of the rushing water; the water line was rising literally by the minute.

“He needs to get out of here,” O’Brien said. “If that water comes up more tonight, he’s going to be completely inundated with water. That could be deadly, and he won’t be able to get out of here.”

O’Brien offered the man a ride and the ability to borrow a wetsuit to make it back to dry land, but the camper refused.

Corvallis police were called to the scene and tried to convince the man to leave, but still he chose to stay. Later in the evening, O’Brien returned to check on him once more. The man was still there, though he’d moved his tent further up the banks to stay dry.

Volunteer manpower

Homeless advocates and river cleaners alike say that this episode highlights the larger problem: When people don’t have safe places to camp elsewhere in town, they choose unsafe ones. And flooding riparian zones, the wetlands adjacent to rivers, aren’t just problematic for the unhoused: The waste they leave behind represents an  environmental hazard, especially when swept into 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 just the kind of hazardous materials they come across.

His tight-knit group of friends and volunteers are river recreationists, particularly enjoying kayaking. He is not only a retired Albany firefighter, he was a part of the agency’s very first water rescue and diving teams.

He’s no stranger to rushing waters of the Willamette. Usually, though, the hazard is the water itself rather than the debris that might be floating in it.

It’s these environmental concerns that have led to the creation of organizations like the Willamette River Keeper program, which started in Eugene in 2014 with the goal of keeping waste out of riparian zones. The group has worked in Corvallis for the past few years, too.

While addressing the problem of homelessness isn’t a primary part of the group’s mission, it is indelibly tied to the problem of trash in rivers.

“As the problem of homelessness has risen, so has the need for us to organize an effort to help address the symptoms of that,” said Michelle Emmons, Upper Willamette Watershed Program coordinator for the group. “By supporting those organizations that deal with homeless, we are directly assisting with our issue of keeping rivers clean.”

Coordinated partnerships

While O’Brien isn’t part of the Willamette River Guardians program, Devis and others who assist with river cleanup are. The city of Corvallis has a partnership with the organization because of liability concerns.

“As a city we had concerns with liability issues,” Corvallis Parks Supervisor Jude Geist said. “There are needles, human waste and various other hazards associated with those camps, … so weren’t comfortable doing our own volunteer effort.”

There are also jurisdictional considerations. Camps can crop up anywhere, from city and county park lands to railroad right-of-ways and spots that are maintained by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Even private businesses can see camps form on their properties.

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

O’Brien and others say they’ve often paid out of their own pocket to haul waste to the nearby landfill rather than risk it sitting in piles that get washed out into the river.

Not that the city doesn’t clean up any camps. Full- and part-time parks crews will often come through and clear out debris left behind from camps that were on notice to vacate; the law requires both volunteers and city crews to provide a couple of weeks’ notice before clearing out camps.

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

Another requirement of clearing out camps is that the city has to hold onto personal items for 72 hours before workers can dispose of them. This gives homeless individuals a chance to recover their belongings.  

For Corvallis Parks, the property is kept at the Avery Park compound before it’s hauled away with the trash.

Accumulating problems

It’s a challenge to maintain the staffing levels and resources necessary to keep up on what amounts to a continual problem. Geist said that his part-time crew of employees, whose sole job is removing debris left behind at camps, has shrunk from three staffers to just one.

It’s not hard to imagine why it’s difficult to retain workers in such an unsanitary role.

“The goal is to have that staff of three people, but we’ve been having a hard time keeping it full,” Geist said. “People come in and work for a day or a week and then decide that it’s not for them.”

Plus, while the camps in riparian zones are an obvious concern, parks staff have to address camps in other areas, too, further straining already limited resources. That’s where volunteer groups especially concerned about the environmental health of the rivers come in, to stand in the gap. 

COVID-19 may have exasperated the problem, some say. The pandemic led to officials to take a more hands-off approach with the homeless, both due to transmission concerns of dispersing the unhoused away from their camps and because of the general housing crisis brought on by the economic downturn.

Geist said there is some truth to that — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention specifically encouraged local governments early in the pandemic to hold off clearing homeless camps for fear of spreading the novel coronavirus, for instance.

But he refutes the notion that the city has left camps and garbage to accumulate during the pandemic. He pointed to several Corvallis Parks-led cleanups in the past year.

Then again, similar efforts were postponed after several members of a camp tested positive, Geist said. “The county found that they were doing testing out there and noticing a number of positive tests came back.”

Not a solution

Volunteers and organizers say that, while the city has been responsive to their requests for help and in coordinating responses, cleanups are really a temporary solution to the larger, complex epidemic of homelessness in which longer-term solutions are often met with a “not in my back yard,” or NIMBY,  mentality.

“There have been a lot of NIMBY-isms that have prevented proper shelter zones for people who have lost their homes to be,” Emmons said. “The transition process into affordable housing is difficult. … The system is overwhelmed. There are far more homeless individuals than there are resources for them.”

Even city officials are aware that to really address the root of the issue will require communitywide solutions.

“While it’s our responsibility to clean up parks and respond to those issues, … it doesn’t solve the underlying problem,” Geist said. “It’s just something that’s a complicated matter that’s going to take community wide efforts to address. … Cleaning up camps solves the immediate trash issue but doesn’t address the larger issues.”

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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