State transportation agency gives prior warning that it would clean-up camps in the area

PMG FILE PHOTO - Homeless camps at two locations in Newberg were cleaned up by the Oregon Department of Transportation last week.

The Oregon Department of Transportation conducted two clean-ups of homeless camps April 11 on state land where Chehalem Creek flows near Highway 99W and Highway 240. The clean-ups came about in response to complaints from the police and the public, some concerned for the safety of the homeless individuals who settled down near the highways. ODOT has a process it follows when undertaking a clean-up.

"We are required to post 10-day notices in a particular place that we are going to do a cleanup," ODOT spokesman Lou Torres said. "We go out there to evaluate and see that it is an issue. If we see there is some garbage there and other issues, then we post a notice with a minimum of 10 days before we can go out and do anything."

ODOT's process is different now than it has been in the past: when the state agency posts notice at a particular location, it also notifies the cities and social services agencies to give them a chance to offer the homeless assistance.

After ODOT posted notice and waited the required 10 days, it conducted the sweep in collaboration with the police for safety's sake and in case any of the campers has run afoul of the law.

"Sometimes people do get arrested because they are wanted for a crime," Torres said. However, when ODOT arrived at the locations in Newberg, they found a surprise.

"There was no one there and there was only garbage there. The places were abandoned," Torres said. "The crews removed an equivalent of one ton of garbage and drug paraphernalia. When we post the notice we would like them to move and at the same time they might have gotten help from the social services agency."

If they find anything of value, such as a tent or sleeping bag, ODOT keeps it for 30 days in case someone wants it back.

ODOT cleaned up four locations in McMinnville at about the same time.

"We are seeing this illegal camping issue really growing. Now we are seeing it in communities that we never have seen it before," Torres said.

The Yamhill County Action Partnership (YCAP) annual homeless count for 2018 totaled 1,066 people who were experiencing homelessness in the county. That figure is down 131 people from last year's count, possibly because of the addition of two new shelters in the county: the Yamhill County Gospel Rescue Mission in McMinnville and Helping Hands men's shelter in Newberg.

Still, the camps keep springing up and, where applicable, ODOT keeps clearing them out.

"We get caught in the middle because we are responsible for the maintenance of the property and safety is real important," Torres said. "Some people feel like we are not cleaning them up fast enough or they feel like we are being unkind because we are uprooting people. We'd much rather have our maintenance people doing all things that people think maintenance people should be doing: cleaning up the roads, fixing the guardrails, mowing grass, pruning trees and really doing the overall maintenance to make sure that everything is operating fine. Instead we are spending millions of dollars doing all this cleanup now."

The problem is that ODOT is responsible for its property and the condition of the land where its roads and bridges sit, which are not designed to house people and are safety issue. They are close to roads and waterways, which is both a safety and health concern.

"The issue has gotten bigger and gotten worse, quite honestly," Torres said. "We now see places in McMinnville and Newberg, Sheridan, Independence and places like that we are going to have to go and clean up illegal camp sites. These are places in the past we never really had to do. We've spent over $3 million just in the past five years doing illegal camp clean-ups and a significant portion of that is the last year or two. We have spent over a-quarter million this year alone."

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