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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

Near Crystal Lake Sports Fields of Corvallis just north of the Mud Bank Da Vinci Days were once heldThe Willamette River’s banks make a great camping spot.

It’s ideal in the summer. It’s a major environmental hazard at this time of the year.

This week, water levels were rapidly rising. 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 cross the new, knee-deep swamp, the pair had on wetsuits as well as booties. After bagging and binging the garbage, they reached the other side, where they were able to transport the remaining trash to a higher altitude.

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The volunteers work together to prevent waste from being swept into rivers. You can find everything from garbage to camping equipment and even 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 stay dry and warm in the rain.

The identity of this individual, who declined to speak with reporters at the site remains unknown. 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 could be inundated with water if more water comes up 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. He was still there, but he had moved his tent higher up the banks to keep dry.

Volunteer manpower

River cleaners and homeless advocates alike agree that this episode highlights the bigger problem: When people don’t have safe areas to camp elsewhere in town they choose unsafe ones. Flooding riparian zones, which are wetlands next to rivers, isn’t just a problem for the homeless: The waste they leave behind can pose a danger to the environment, especially if it is swept into the water.

Volunteers like OBrien, Devis and others describe mountains of trash at various locations around Corvallis. OBrien referred to a juice box stuffed full of used syringes, as an example of the hazardous materials they come across.

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’s not afraid of the Willamette’s rushing waters. Usually, however, the hazard is the water itself and not any debris floating in it.

These environmental concerns are what have led to the creation organizations such as the Willamette RiverKeeper program. It was established in Eugene in 2014 and aims to keep waste out of the riparian zones. The group has been working in Corvallis over the past few year.

Although homelessness isn’t the primary goal of the group, it is inextricably 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 other river-cleanup volunteers are part of the Willamette River Guardians Program, but OBrien is not. Due to liability concerns, the city of Corvallis has formed a partnership.

Jude Geist, Corvallis Parks Supervisor said that liability was a concern for the city. There are needles, human urine, and other hazards associated with camps like those, so we weren’t comfortable volunteering.

There are also jurisdictional considerations. 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. Camps can form on private property, even for businesses.

This patchwork makes it easier for volunteers to get agreements with different agencies and do the cleanup.

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. Both part-time and full time parks crews will often clean up debris from camps that were not on notice to vacate. Volunteers and city crews must give at least two weeks’ notice before clearing out these camps.

Geist stated that Corvallis will likely double its 2020 trash disposal budget in 2020.

The city must also keep personal items in storage for 72 hours to ensure that they can be disposed of 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 the goal is to have three people on staff, but it has 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 refuted the notion that the city had left garbage and camps to accumulate during the pandemic. He pointed out Several cleanups led by Corvallis Parks over the past year.

Similar efforts were again postponed. A camp had several members who tested positive,Geist said. The county noticed that there were positive results and they were carrying out testing.

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 transition into affordable housing. The system is overwhelmed. There are many more homeless people than there are resources.

Even city officials recognize that community-wide solutions are required to address the root causes of the problem.

Geist stated that while it is our responsibility to clean up parks and address any issues, it does not solve the underlying problem. It is a complicated issue that will require community effort to solve. Although it solves the immediate trash problem, it does not address the larger issues.

Troy Shinn covers healthcare and natural resources as well as Linn County government. Contact Troy Shinn at [email protected] or 541-812-6114. You can follow him on Twitter @troydshinn. 

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