Community Concern: Inside Illegal Camping

It was early in the morning on June 13 when I met Sergeant Joel Goodwin, the Community Livability Unit supervisor for the Corvallis Police Department, whose many responsibilities include posting camps and supervising illegal camp cleanups in town. Posting refers to the process of notifying illegal campers of the need to vacate their site within 24 hours. Police officers leave a large green card listing the laws that are being broken, local shelters, and locations where campers can retrieve their stored belongings, should they fail to move in time.

Sergeant Goodwin explained that the most common way officers locate illegal campsites is through public complaints. There had been complaints issued about a group of campsites established at the BMX park recently, where we were headed that morning.

Prior to our arrival, Goodwin informed me of what he sees as a current trend in Corvallis. “People are becoming more brazen about camping. They are camping out in the open now. Campers say it is easy to be homeless in Corvallis. It is easy to get tents, and we offer great social services, which is wonderful, but it is also facilitating the status quo. 

“Last week for example, I heard from a man who said he had been homeless in Clackamas County and he came to Corvallis specifically because he heard that this is a good place to be homeless.” 

How Many Homeless?
Point-In-Time count are annual counts of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons taken over the last 10 days in January across the country, and are required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to receive federal funding for homeless programs. The counts show that there is a steadily increasing number of persons experiencing homelessness in Benton County. In 2015, the PIT count was 127. In 2016, it jumped to 199, and in 2017, the count was at 287. 

Clothes and garbage spilling into the forest from D.J.’s campsite.

Conversely, Corvallis’ League of Women Voters compiled a 2017 report showing Benton County likely had between 855 and 1257 people experiencing homelessness in 2015, versus the 127 PIT count. This calls into question whether PIT counts accurately represent homeless populations. The accuracy of the PIT count depends on many factors, like how many people volunteer to count. If you have fewer people out counting, you won’t be able to cover much ground, and the potential to misrepresent the real number of homeless individuals is greater. It also depends on who reports. If a shelter fails to report accurate numbers, or fails to report at all, this will throw off the count. Further, these counts are only conducted over a very short time, during one season. Conducting a second count in Summer might offer more accurate numbers. 

Whatever the true count may be, Sergeant Goodwin has seen a notable increase of illegal campers in Corvallis. One thing he claims is leading to the increase is the wrong kind of help: “You have a group of folks who get together and say, ‘hey, we want to help the homeless. Let’s make lunches,’ or you have student groups going out and handing out lunches and socks and things. 

“It’s great that people feel that compassion, but I think it would be more productive if somehow we could redirect that, so instead of offering freebies, people who want to help could be offering job training, giving someone a ride to their AA meeting, or doing whatever it may be that helps that individual transition out of homelessness, instead of facilitating it.” 

Posting Camps is No Solution
CPD posted over 300 illegal campsites last year, and one thing seems apparent: posting camps is no solution. It merely perpetuates the incessant cycle of movement from one illegal campsite to another. 

According to Aleita Hass-Holcombe, President of the Corvallis Daytime Drop-In Center, this cyclic uprooting causes people to be in permanent fight or flight mode. “Trauma causes changes to occur in the brain, and future planning is one of the first things to go,” said Holcombe. 

Service providers like Holcombe understand that this unending cycle causes psychological damage while decreasing any likelihood of transitioning back into society and stabilizing.

Mickey Hiller and Sergeant Joel Goodwin approaching Summer’s Camp.

Police officers and Parks and Recreation employees are required to uphold city ordinances, and when these ordinances are in violation, they are required to impose them. Because of the way this process is currently executed, they, like the individuals they are forced to move, feel a sense of purposelessness in our current policy of evicting campers every few weeks. There is no destination for anyone involved – no permanent place to land for the campers, and no end in sight for the government employees who must enforce the law.

If you are curious to dive into the rules around illegal camping, you can find them on the City of Corvallis website, under Local Laws. There is one section that has a significant impact on illegal campers, found within Title 5 – Offenses, Chapter 5.01- City Park Regulations. There, you can find a long list of regulations that have been designed to protect public lands and to establish a precedent for public use. 

The Clean-Up
On the day of the clean-up, I followed Sergeant Goodwin and another officer to a park with a BMX track at its center, the first of four parks to be cleared that day. A dump truck with the recognizable Parks and Recreation logo stood in the parking lot, with another five men standing around it. One was Mickey Hiller, the Park Maintenance Technician for Corvallis Parks and Recreation.

Hiller and Goodwin discussed a man named D.J., who was on the schedule to be moved that day. Goodwin informed me that they had posted the campsites in this park one week ago, and had posted D.J. four or five times in the last year. 

The first campsite we visited was already abandoned. Large amounts of trash, stoves, pallets, tents, tarps, and a single unlaced white sneaker were left behind. 

On the other side in a grotto was a small campsite with a single three-person tent. 

“Hi Bruce,” said Sergeant Goodwin, to a man at the site. “I gave you eight days to move your stuff. Why are you still here?” 

Bruce seemed to know the drill. He nodded and explained that he had moved most of it, but needed more time to get the rest of his belongings out. He was given an hour to finish clearing his campsite before the crew came down to clean the area. He was not given a ticket. 

“Are you getting a job?” Sergeant Goodwin pressed. 

Bruce assured him that yes, he was trying. “It’s hard to make it,” he said. “It’s hard to get a job when I’m asked to move every two weeks.”

Bruce is a gentle-looking 58-year-old man, with wavy graying hair and blue eyes. He had a construction job, but lost it when he had to move his camp on a day he was supposed to be at work. 

He told me he has lived in Corvallis all of his life, but has been homeless for the past four years. He would not tell me how he became homeless. When I asked if he received services, he shared that he uses the Daytime Drop-In Center once a week. He had been at this campsite for two weeks before being asked to leave. Though he did not know where he would go next, he seemed to have accepted that wherever he ended up, he would have to move again.

The Cause of Illegal Camping
How does someone like Bruce end up in a situation like this? Shawn Collins, Housing Opportunities Action Council Project Manager for United Way of Benton County, who does much to support the homeless community, shared a similar story.

“We had a guy who stayed at the shelter this year,” said Collins. “He had two jobs, and he didn’t have enough money to rent an apartment. Part of why he was there was just ‘cause he was trying to save money so he could afford a deposit, the background check, and application fees so he could be housed. Now he is. But he didn’t have a substance abuse problem. He was working his tail off. He was just broke.” 

Hardworking individuals are having to utilize shelters or resort to illegal camping in order to save up for overpriced housing. 

An article by Sarah Holder in CityLab paints a harsh reality, stating, “Today, there is not one U.S. state, metropolitan area, or county in which a minimum wage worker who clocks 40 hours a week can afford a two-bedroom apartment. And only in 28 out of the country’s 3,007 counties can a 40-hour-a-week minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom.” 

According to Collins, another reason people resort to illegal camping has to do with drug and alcohol addictions. When a person experiencing homelessness has a substance abuse problem, there are not a lot of options available to them. Shelters like Community Outreach Incorporated do not allow current abusers to be sheltered there. 

“We don’t have to pass a breathalyzer test to come home,” said Collins. “Requiring people to do something near impossible [like giving up an addiction without support, in order to be housed] makes the choice to come inside more difficult.”

“Corvallis Looks Like Crap”
I followed Goodwin and Hiller to D.J.’s campsite, where a massive pile of belongings – dwellings built of plywood boards, pallets, and tarps – crested at the top of the hill, reaching down along a mud-sculpted staircase to the creek below. 

“This creek flows into the Willamette,” said Sergeant Goodwin.  

“I just saw people floating the other day in the river, and this here,” he motioned to the large campsite and the garbage floating in the creek, “is not creating a healthy situation for people downstream.”

We have all probably heard the whisperings of people who feel that illegal camping is of growing concern in Corvallis. You may have heard this in conversation, or from the recently created Facebook group Corvallis Looks Like Crap.

CLLC was started by Paul Cauthorn, and serves as a platform for the community to weigh in on illegal camping issues in town. Cauthorn declined to comment for this article.

On the group’s page, you will see many images of garbage that has been dumped in our natural areas, both inside and outside of illegal encampments. Trash is often attributed to the homeless. Whether that attribution is valid or not, is not always apparent. 

Also on the page are pictures of the Parks and Recreation’s holding site and the police department’s storage facilities that show a staggering amount of bikes and bike parts, considered to be stolen, that were removed from camps during clean-ups. 

CLLC members seem to be deeply frustrated over the city’s handling of illegal camping. 

Kari Whitacre, Executive Director of Community Outreach Inc. and a member of CLLC, shared her opinion on the group’s purpose: “CLLC is one way [for people in our community] to share their voice.”

Some unproductive or destructive voices can be found on CLLC – using abusive language such as calling campers “tweakers” and “scumbags,” and making assumptions that campers steal from neighboring citizens. 

Speaking to these voices, Whitacre said, “If [campers] are respectful and clean up after [themselves], we’re good with that, [but for the] folks who are impacted by illegal camping… it goes back to fear. We all need to live in safe conditions. It’s a cry from folks who are not being heard.”

Whitacre continued, “We’ve never had the conversation about what behaviors we will or won’t accept as a community, and until we have that conversation, people will continue to be impacted. [The illegal campers] will become more and more empowered, until we can come together as one unified voice.” 

Whack-A-Mole
The photos of trash I saw on CLLC were now before me, in 3D. 

Piles of bikes and bike parts, stoves, propane tanks, an old guitar case, carpet squares, a barbecue, clothes that cascaded over bushes, garbage bags full of trash, and an empty wallet lay in the dried mud. It was a lot to take in, and I was feeling increasingly uneasy, as one does when entering someone’s private space uninvited.

Back at D.J.’s camp, Sergeant Goodwin was talking to a man named Kimball. 

Kimball is a high spirited man with a good sense of humor, long curly graying hair, and blue eyes that twinkled. He was attempting to organize the vast camp into piles of essentials and piles of non-essentials before the dump truck came over to take away his belongings. 

He described his situation as “Whack-A-Mole.” 

“We are domestic refugees of status,” he said. “There needs to be one place that is legal for camping.”

Legal Camping & Crime
Kimball complained to Sergeant Goodwin and Hiller about a girl still asleep in D.J.’s camp, who he said was causing fights and problems. As she emerged from the wood structure, I could see that she was young. She was barefoot, and had what looked like a piece of clothing in her arms. Silently, she disappeared down the slope into some trees. 

The questions came flooding: Where was she going? Wasn’t anyone going to follow her and make sure she was okay? What will happen to her? Goodwin must have read the worry on my face, because he shook his head sadly. “That’s Cassie,” he said. “She sometimes lives with her dad. I think she might have family issues.” 

Cassie was later arrested for setting fires at the BMX track on June 17, four days after the move. Prior to the clean-up, she was arrested for reckless burning and possession of methamphetamine on June 11.

As Goodwin and I walked back to the parking lot, I asked him about Kimball’s request for a permanent campground. “It is just a different status quo,” said Goodwin. “People still litter, and the high impact group won’t go. There are too many rules for them. The goal is, the folks who are very impactful would use the camps, but they don’t. Eugene spent a lot of money on a campground like that, and there are thefts and assaults. They don’t seem to work.”

Whitacre does not believe in the effectiveness of managed camps either. “Google it,” she instructed, “[they] don’t work. They get shut down. There is a lot of garbage, they are hard to manage, and there are drugs.”

Whitacre does not see legal camping as transitional, saying it keeps homeless people “in their current state.”

On the subject of providing Port-A-Johns, she said, “When bathrooms were provided in the camps, the bathrooms were destroyed. Outhouses are a terrible idea.

“Homelessness is a circumstance. It is not a person. It is a circumstance of an experience that a person has had. We need to change the conversation from being [about] homelessness to [being about] behavior. We need a standard of behavior.” 

She posed, “Can we have a consequence for an action?”

This made me think back to the bikes, bike parts, and wallets I saw at the camps.  “We can’t fine them,” Sergeant Goodwin told me. “We can’t punish them. They can’t pay. We check serial numbers on bikes, but can’t prove they are stolen if they don’t have a serial number, and the jails are at capacity, so if we do find someone who has committed a crime that is a low-level offense, they are often let go, because there is just no room for them.”

A Costly Operation
That day, there were two police officers, five Parks and Recreation employees, and two dump trucks on site, working for five hours – all begging the question: how much does an operation like this cost?

Sergeant Goodwin stated that his Community and Livability unit spends about half of their time working on illegal camping. I asked him if that would be about 20 hours a week, and he nodded, yes. The average officer in Corvallis makes $53,800 a year. So, half of that, or $26,900 per officer, is spent on illegal camp cleanup per year. There are currently six officers on this team, so that works out to be approximately $161,400 annually (These numbers are based on the average salary of a Corvallis police officer listed on salary.com.). 

What else could we be doing with this money instead of running on a hamster wheel?

Pioneer Park
Our next stop was at Pioneer Park, where a medium-sized camp was set up in a small clearing by the railroad tracks. The crew knew the campers well, and spoke about someone named Summer with affection. “She shouldn’t be out here,” said Sergeant Goodwin to Hiller. “I really want to see her get into a better situation.”

We approached Summer’s shelter, consisting of a tent, tarps, and large unfolded cardboard boxes, forming two walls and a makeshift roof. Surrounding it was a sea of belongings and trash that spilled into the surrounding landscape. I could see an old rusty hand truck propped up against a tree. Beneath it lay a bicycle wheel with a new tire, a green suitcase, empty plastic containers, coolers, an extension cord, and four garbage cans with plastic liners that appeared empty. 

I spoke with the campers after Goodwin and Hiller warned them of the dump truck coming next week. 

A man named Cave Man lounged back into his camping chair with a cigarette. He had a great grin on his face that made me smile. Summer had large, sweet eyes and curly reddish hair. She sat in the tent and spoke to me through the door. They told me they’d been in this camp for three weeks, but usually move weekly. The services they like to use are Stone Soup and the Daytime Drop-In Center. They didn’t want to transition back into society. 

“We’ve been 11 years camping,” said Cave Man. “It’s hard to be indoors.”

“We need a permanent camp with garbage, showers, and bathrooms,” said Summer, “where we can, together, make the rules, not the police… Everyone has to be a part of a community. We need a permanent camp community.”

Before I left, Summer shared her sentiments about the crew: “The officers and Parks and Recreation people have been treating us like real people.” 

We headed to the last campsite with a dry creek running down the center. This one had a bad vibe. No one knew the camper’s name. There was a large tent covered in camouflage close to some bushes. Garbage spread out across a large expanse. Plastic bags and old food wrappers, and toilet paper wads filled the small, dry creek bed like stuffing. Sergeant Goodwin and Hiller walked towards the tent and announced their presence. There was no response. 

I wandered around finding empty spray paint cans, used syringes, plastic bags, bike parts, a shopping cart, a wallet, an umbrella, a chair, toilet paper, piles of clothes, garbage, and a smoker. 

The person inside the tent finally responded. She said her name was Josephine, and reached out from the structure just enough to accept the green notice that Sergeant Goodwin was holding out.

“Who are you working with?” he asked. “The Drop-In Center?” 

In a raspy voice, she responded, “Not many successful stories coming out of the Drop-In Center.” Josephine was angry and she wanted us to go away. She did not want to discuss services.

Hiller urged her to move camp. “This area is going to get cleaned up next week.” 

“Get out of my camp!” she shouted, adding, “This is not my garbage. It just showed up here last night.”

Hiller turned to me with raised eyebrows. “This area was clean one week ago.”

Sergeant Goodwin and Hiller continued on with their duties, while I thanked them, and headed to meet Sean Collins.

Déjà Vu
Collins was kind enough to accompany me back to the BMX track to follow up with Bruce and Kimball. 

It had been three hours since I last saw them, and as we walked towards the campsite, Collins shared that camps are constantly being recycled. It wouldn’t be more than a day sometimes, before they were occupied again either by the same person or a new camper. I stopped dead in my tracks.

“What is the point of all this?” I asked, bewildered.

Collins laughed. The irony of the situation had obviously occurred to him before. “Enforcing the law, and cleaning the parks,” he shrugged. “I’ve been staring at this problem for three years.” 

“There’s a spectrum here,” he continued. “Anywhere on the spectrum of adding port-a-johns, or garbage service, or camp management is a step up from where we are now.” 

While Bruce had left, Kimball was still there, putting camp back together and pruning blackberry canes away from the roof of a small wooden shelter. 

Collins and Kimball knew each other well, and Collins is a constant advocate for improving community current housing services and the way we connect people to services. He visits sites once a week, on average “hitting 20 camps.” 

As Collins took two granola bars and water bottles out of his backpack, Kimball began to tell us what happened after I left. “They came and took a couple of truck loads away. They said they’d be back next week and if anything is still here they’d take it all.”

“I don’t see any point to this,” he bemoaned. “It’s a high stakes, low-grade, midway game played with human beings. There needs to be a plot of land that is designated for permanent camping. It is so insane to hand out camping gear and supplies with no place to go with it.”

Kimball continued, “For a number of years this is how it’s been. I would really like to see some new ideas that still manage to allow [homeless campers] a way to live.”

Speaking to trash, Kimball said, “It’s really hard to get trash to someplace it needs to go. How much does it cost to just provide a dumpster, a solar water station, a port-a-potty? And how much does it cost when these people get sick?”

He did not want to see a managed camp, but instead pointed to a need for multiple permanent camps. “There are factions of these people who do not get along and they do not want to get along. They don’t want to be Kumbaya-ing around. There needs to be two or more places named.”

As Kimball walked Collins and me back to the parking lot, I asked for a response to those who claim that being homeless is a choice, and that people who provide services to them act as enablers. 

“Yes, I get that a lot,” said Collins. “Look, choosing to live under conditions that are significantly going to impact your life and your life span and create health problems for you that are going to bring you to an unpleasant end sooner than you want, well, we don’t particularly look at those as being terrifically rational choices.”

Kimball added, “You have no idea where you are going to lay your head each night. You have no idea whether you’ll be molested by something or other. You have no idea where your next meal is coming from.”

One thing he sees certain: “Everyone has the right to sleep at night.”

By Blair Girard