ODOT, police sweep up Salem's largest homeless camp: 'A significantly growing issue'

ODOT, police sweep Salem homeless camp - KATU photo from reporter Genevieve Reaume

Police and state transportation crews swept Salem's largest homeless camp on Monday morning.

The makeshift village on the walkway up to the Center Street bridge was at one point housing more than two dozen campers.

On Sunday, the campers posted up in the cold for one last night. The sweep began at 8 a.m. Monday morning.

“They’re illegally camping, so they need to move,” said Lou Torres, a public information officer with the Oregon Department of Transportation. “We gave them ample warning to do that.”

The campers got their first notice almost two weeks ago.

"Right now we don’t have nowhere to go,” Javier, a man who lived in camp, said. “Everybody’s being scattered around Salem again.”

Before police told the campers to leave, they offered them a hot cup of coffee. It was a bit of an icebreaker ahead of the tough task at hand.

“A lot of people are scared,” Javier said. “A lot of people don’t know what they’re going to do.”

While Portland is familiar with the issue of homelessness, Torres said it’s a more recent problem in Salem.

“This is a significantly growing issue,” Torres said. “We’re having a lot more campgrounds here in the Willamette Valley, Salem another communities.”

ODOT says $3.1 million of taxpayer money went to cleaning up homeless camps between 2013 and 2017, and year after year it just gets more expensive. In 2017, the state spent nearly a third of that $3 million cleaning up the streets, proving the problem is now bigger than it was in past years.

“That’s a lot of money, and it’s going to keep increasing,” Torres said, and added that the money being used is coming out of the maintenance budget, which means other projects, like “filling potholes, fixing guardrail, [and] cleaning gravel off the road,” are getting put on hold.

ODOT said social services has come out to the camp over the past few weeks to help get the campers to a legal and safe place, but the campers say, they think they’re on the right track to a solution.

"We could put all these people in one lot, in one lot,” Javier said, explaining that these campers would like to live in some sort of sanctioned homeless camp similar to those in Portland.

The homeless task force is considering that idea, as well as a sobering center. The task force meets again Tuesday night.

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