Reclaiming the Springwater happy trails
Kevin Dahlgren walked the length of Gresham's section of the Springwater Corridor Trail during his first week on the job as a community health services advisor with city last October.
His task was to find ways to get the chronically homeless off the streets. The trail was flagged as a trouble spot after countless complaints from nearby homeowners and community members who said they felt unsafe walking or living on the trail.
The 4.5 mile section was overrun with homeless camps and trash. Including the 14 additional miles of dirt trails that diverge from the main Springwater route, Dahlgren discovered more than 150 camps — ranging from simple tents to embedded compounds that had been in place for years with heating and electricity.
"We knew the city of Gresham had a livability issue with the Springwater," Dahlgren said. "Everybody has a right to walk on the trail."
But that right for residents was being compromised by all the camps. During his first walk, Dahlgren discovered about 100 shopping carts overflowing with belongings; benches and shelters claimed by the homeless as premier camp sites; and thousands of pounds of trash that was ruining one of the best natural areas in the community.
Residents who lived nearby the Springwater complained daily of homeless campers coming into their backyards at night and stealing items off porches. The Gresham Parks Department and other groups did what they could. They responded to complaints about messy camps and cleaned things up, but that just shifted the campers to another section of the trail.
"Even my girlfriend told me she wouldn't run on the corridor because she didn't feel safe," Dahlgren said. "So I made the corridor my first big project."
After that first week, Dahlgren, and others across the city, dedicated themselves to getting the homeless off the streets and into permanent housing.
The result has been a reclamation of Gresham's Springwater Corridor Trail. While the city of Portland still struggles to deal with its portion — marked by crime and an overwhelming amount of trash and camps — Gresham's share of the Springwater is now clean, almost completely free of homeless camps, and most importantly, safe.
"We sent a clear message that camping isn't allowed," Dahlgren said. "It wasn't the most popular decision with everyone, but it was needed."
Drawing the line
The two worst sections of Gresham's Springwater Trail were infamously known as the "Deep Woods," where the trails stretched away from the paved path and wound through heavy foliage and trees.
In the "Deep Woods," homeless campers had little desire to leave. Most had called those sections home for years, and even Dahlgren admitted it was an unsafe place for people to go without supervision.
City staff reached out to the people within the "Deep Woods" to see if they were ready for permanent housing. A common response was no — but city staff persisted.
"We helped the people who wanted help," Dahlgren said.
Those who refused were asked to find somewhere else to camp. Most headed to Portland and its laissez-faire approach to the problem, Dahlgren said. The result of the exodus can be found at the western edge of the Gresham trail — where the Springwater intersects with Southeast Jenne Road.
Only 50 feet from the Gresham section, you can see several camps and shopping carts choking the Portland trail. Underneath the bridge nearby on Jenne, one homeless camper has accumulated about a thousand pounds of trash, which used to be a common sight in Gresham.
Dahlgren said he knows several of the campers on the border of Gresham and Portland. Despite his efforts, they aren't ready to accept help. So they continue to camp in Portland.
At the Gresham Police Department, officers sign up for extra shifts along the Springwater. They have targeted patrols four days every week, on weekends and varying weekdays, with two officers each shift.
"We want to let people know that the Springwater Trail is safe in Gresham," said Officer Ben Costigan, spokesman for the department.
During the summer, school resource officers are also assigned to bike patrols that take them along the Springwater as well as other trails and parks within the city. The proactive approach has led to fewer emergency calls being made from the Springwater in recent years, Costigan said.
"We don't have a problem with homeless people walking the trail or sitting on a bench, but we are making it clear there is no camping," Dahlgren said. "We spent several months cleaning this area, and we are going to keep it that way."
Returning to the corridor
One of the best tools for maintaining a pristine Springwater has been the MyGresham mobile application, which allows people to send reports to city staff.
Despite Dahlgren's daily rounds, and the patrols from police, camps and other problems still crop up.
"The camps will never stay at zero unless you station someone every 100 feet," Dahlgren said.
The combined efforts have led to a bright future for Gresham's Springwater Trail. According to officials, in the last three months they haven't found any tents along the trail and reports of trash have been minimal.
Those on the trail who stumble across a homeless camp or something that makes them uncomfortable report it via MyGresham. The city is then able to track and respond to those issues within an hour and initiate the process of getting the homeless individual into a better situation.
"It's not about enforcement, it's about helping those who are ready for change," Dahlgren said.
Dahlgren explained the only issue with the process is that people tend to assume someone else has already reported the camp. The city would rather have 10 reports about the same thing than never hear about it.
Community volunteers are also helping reclaim the Springwater. The city purchased grabbers to pass out to several neighborhood groups, which are now being used to pick up trash along the trail.
Dahlgren has seen a significant increase in joggers and cyclists — and it's not just people returning to the corridor. Dahlgren is starting to see deer in the "Deep Woods" sections, which was unheard of when he first started because of the vast number of campers.
One of Dahlgren's dreams for the trail is removing the bright orange construction fence that runs along a significant portion of the Gresham section, blocking access to the infamous "Deep Woods." It was put in place to deter camping, but has instead become an eyesore. It also is fairly easy to circumvent, with several areas cut away or knocked down.
His idea would be to have a nice wooden fence all along Gresham's section of the trail. It would signify the work that has been done along the route.
"Any great city is known for its natural areas," he said. "We have this beautiful area, so let's keep making something special."
While many outdoor enthusiasts are returning, the hope is that even more community members will start using the Springwater. One of those who now recreates along the trail is Dahlgren's girlfriend, who enjoys biking and running on the trail.
"She was blown away by how clean it was," he said with a laugh.
Helping the homeless
Kevin Dahlgren brought plenty of experience to the city.
He spent seven years working in homeless shelters, more than a decade in mental health facilities, and several years at a residential treatment facility. He has worked for nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, faith-based organizations, Multnomah County and several city-supported programs.
One of the hardest things for social workers is building communication with the people they are trying to help, which is why Dahlgren remains so diligent in meeting with homeless individuals. The city has rental phones which Dahlgren is able to give out after making initial contact. It allows people to both keep in touch with him, and begin reconnecting with loved ones.
"There is a lot of mistrust in the system," Dahlgren said, "But I'm not making any assumptions when I meet with them, I just want to find out what they want."
Most of the homeless Dahlgren has encountered in Gresham want to find housing — though the process often takes several follow up meetings.
"Not everyone is ready for help that first day," he said. "These are complex individuals, and helping can take time."
Many on the streets in Gresham have estranged families, drug and alcohol addictions, mental illnesses, and medical issues. Some have been living along the Springwater Corridor Trail for 3 to 4 years, which makes it difficult to even get them thinking about finding housing.
When Dahlgren meets with the homeless, he looks for "change talk" during his conversations that indicate the person is willing to take steps to getting into stable housing.
"We are here to help you, but we don't want people to camp out here," Dahlgren said.
Dahlgren serves as an initial contact for the homeless, to build relationships before enforcement occurs. It allows him to discover what each homeless person's problems are, and what can be done to fix them.
"I love doing this because you start to see hope in their eyes again," Dahlgren said. "I'm proud to work for the city, I feel like we are truly making a difference here."
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