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Volunteers help to clean up litter along the Willamette.| Local
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Volunteers help to clean up litter along the Willamette.| Local

There is a great spot for camping near Crystal Lake Sports Fields, Corvallis, on the banks of Willamette River.

Ideal in the summer. It is a serious environmental danger at this time of year.

The water levels rose rapidly just this week. Jean-Luc Devis and Bill OBrien were part of a larger group that includes residents and volunteers from Corvallis. They were there Monday to pick up trash at an abandoned encampment.

To traverse the new, knee-deep bog, the pair had to don wetsuits and boots. They managed to get to the other side by bagging and binning the trash left behind and were able to move the remaining items to a higher elevation.

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The volunteers try to prevent the waste from getting swept into the river. You can find everything from garbage to camping equipment, as well as used needles at abandoned campsites.

Although volunteers are usually limited to unoccupied camps, this site still had one man sheltering in a tent in an attempt to keep dry and warm in the rain.

The identity of the individual, who refused to speak to reporters at the site is not known. Devis and OBrien urged him not to stay and to avoid the danger from the rushing waters; the water level was literally rising by the minute.

OBrien stated that he needs to get out. He will be completely flooded with water if the water rises more tonight. This could prove fatal and he will not be able get out.

OBrien offered to give the man a ride, and he would lend a wetsuit to get him back to dryland. But the camper refused.

Corvallis police arrived on the scene and tried convincing the man to leave. But he refused. Later that evening, OBrien visited the man to check on him. The man was still there. However, he had moved his tent up the banks to stay dry.

Volunteer manpower

River cleaners and homeless advocates agree that this episode highlights a larger problem: People choose to live in unsafe areas when they don’t have safe places to camp elsewhere in the city. Flooding riparian areas, or the wetlands that are adjacent to rivers, is not just a problem for those who don’t have a place to camp. The waste they leave behind is an environmental danger, especially when it gets swept into water.

Volunteers like OBrien, Devis and others describe mountains of trash at various locations around Corvallis. OBrien cited a juice box containing used syringes in his example of the hazardous materials they encounter.

His close-knit circle of friends and volunteers is river recreationists, especially kayaking. He is not only a retired Albany firefighter; he was also part of the agency’s very first water rescue or diving teams.

He is no stranger to the rushing waters of Willamette. Usually, however, the hazard is the water itself and not any debris floating in it.

These environmental concerns have led to the establishment of programs like the Willamette river Keeper program. This program was founded in Eugene in 2014. Its goal is to keep waste out the riparian areas. The group has been working in Corvallis over the past few year.

While the main mission of the group is not to address the problem of homelessness, it is indelibly linked to the problem posed by trash in rivers.

Michelle Emmons is the Upper Willamette Watershed Program coordinator. She said that as the problem of homelessness has increased, so has the need to organize an effort in order to address its symptoms. We are directly helping to solve the problem of rivers being clean by supporting organizations that help homeless people.

Coordinated Partnerships

Devis and others who help with river cleanup are, although OBrien isn’t part of Willamette River Guardians, Devis is. Because of liability concerns, Corvallis has entered into a partnership agreement with the organization.

Jude Geist, Corvallis Parks Supervisor, stated that there were concerns about liability as a city. We are not comfortable volunteering our time because there are dangers such as needles, human waste, and other hazards that can be associated with those camps.

There are also considerations regarding jurisdiction. There are many places where camps can be found, including in city parks and county parks. They can also be found on railroad right-of ways and other spots that are maintained and managed by the Oregon Department of Transportation. Even private businesses may see camps develop on their property.

It is often easier for volunteers to make agreements with agencies and clean up after a patchwork.

OBrien and others claim that they have often paid out of their own pockets to haul waste to the nearest landfill, rather than risking it being piled up in the river.

However, the city does not clean up any camps. Part-time and full-time parks crews will often clear out any debris from camps that were given notice to vacate. The law requires both city crews and volunteers to give at least two weeks notice before clearing out the camps.

Geist said that Corvallis will likely increase its 2020 trash disposal budget by at least two-thirds.

Another requirement for clearing out camps is that personal items must be kept by the city for 72 hours before they can be taken away by workers. This allows homeless people to retrieve their belongings.

Corvallis Parks keeps the property at the Avery Park compound, before it is thrown away with the trash.

Accumulating problems

It is difficult to maintain the necessary staffing and resources to deal with what amounts to a constant problem. Geist stated that his part-time staff, whose sole purpose is to remove debris from camps, has decreased from three to one.

It’s easy to understand why it is difficult to retain workers in such a unsanitary position.

Geist stated that while the goal is to have a staff of three, it’s been difficult to keep it full. People will come in to work for a few days or weeks, then decide it is not for them.

Additionally, the camps in riparian areas are a concern, but parks staff also have to deal with camps in other areas, further straining already limited resources. This is where volunteer groups, which are especially concerned about the river’s environmental health, step in.

Some believe COVID-19 may be responsible for the current situation. Because of transmission concerns about dispersing homeless from their camps, and the general housing shortage caused by the economic downturn, officials took a more cautious approach to dealing with the homeless.

Geist stated that there is some truth in the fact that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraged local governments to delay clearing homeless camps early in the pandemic, for fear of spreading the novel coronavirus.

He refutes the idea that the city left garbage and camps to accumulate during the pandemic. He cited several Corvallis Parks-led cleanups that he had participated in over the past one year.

Geist stated that similar efforts were rescheduled after several camp members tested positive. The county discovered that they were testing out the area and noticed a lot of positive results.

There is no solution

Volunteers and organizers claim that while the city has responded to their requests and coordinated responses, cleanups are a temporary solution for the larger, complex epidemics of homelessness. Long-term solutions are often met by a NIMBY mentality.

Emmons stated that there have been a lot NIMBY-isms which have prevented people from having shelter zones. It is difficult to find affordable housing. The system is overwhelmed. There are many more homeless people than there are resources.

Even city officials know that a community-wide solution is required to address the root cause of the problem.

Geist said that while it is our responsibility clean up parks and respond appropriately to any problems, it doesn’t solve the root problem. It’s a complex problem that will require community-wide efforts to resolve. Although it solves the immediate problem of trash, it does not address the larger issues.

Troy Shinn is responsible in healthcare, natural resource and Linn County government. Contact Troy Shinn at [email protected] or 541-812-6114. You can follow him on Twitter @troydshinn. 

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