‘Environmental cleanup’ cited in Johnson Creek transient campers’ eviction

When the posted signs warning of the impending cleanup were ignored, see what ODOT did to clear the area …

Slow to heed the warning signs, some homeless campers along Johnson Creek under the Interstate 205 Freeway have to scurry to gather up their belongings as a large-scale clean-out begins.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Signs posted by the Oregon Department of Transpiration (ODOT) at every entrance to the homeless camp set up under the Interstate 205 bridges that cross over Johnson Creek on Monday, September 30, were explicit: Move out now, or be moved.

However, six of the lingering homeless campers who had taken up residence there asserted that they were “surprised” when about fifty ODOT workers, two Multnomah County Corrections inmate work crews, a dozen trucks – and an industrial-sized front-loader – rolled into their “community” on October 3.

Nestled among workers’ vehicles, sitting in the brush, some of the evicted campers set up a temporary encampment, pondering their next move.

Signs with this text are posted throughout the area, warning of the impending clean up effort..

At the northeast corner of SE 92nd Avenue and SE Flavel Street – just down the street from where a transient was suspected of accosting a TriMet bus driver – a small group of homeless people settled with their belongings along the Multi-Use Path and watched the trucks go by.

“Look there,” said an ODOT worker, pointing out a trio of displaced campers. “One of them has a case of beer, the other a bag of snacks – and another one is talking on a cell phone.”

“Almost nobody is fair with us in the media,” sneered a woman who saw our camera, but said she was hoping for a favored news reporter.  “We have a right to be here; this is our community. We deserve at least at 30 day notice before they come in here.”

“I know what you are; just a guy working, earning a living, paying their taxes, you [expletive deleted]”,” she added.

Others in the area, toting their belongings on carts or bicycle trailers looked dazed, sad, or tearful.

Dozens of trucks and workers move in near the intersection of the Springwater Trail and the Multi-Use Path.

Even after being requested to leave the area, some campers remain.

Frank Felker, who called himself a “long-time camper” in the area, said that the camp’s population had grown exponentially over the summer, from a half-dozen tents, up to as many as 40 structures. “It’s really gone downhill, when so many move in here,” he added.

Past the intersection of the I-205 Multi-Use Path and the Springwater Trail – a good half-mile from any motorized vehicle road – was the ODOT “command center”.

ODOT Region 1 Public Information Officer Don Hamilton takes notes about the large-scale clean-out continues.

“We’ve heard that some of the transients living in this camp say they were unaware that they were trespassing,” said ODOT Region 1 Public Information Officer Don Hamilton. “But, there are ‘No Trespassing’ signs located throughout the area.”

The cleanup was more than simply rousting homeless campers, Hamilton told East Portland News – it was in some ways a Haz-Mat remediation, as workers carefully picked through the area, avoiding being stuck by used hypodermic needles, stepping around human waste, and disposing of countless bottles of urine.

“Millions of dollars has been spent and restoring the migrating salmon in Johnson Creek,” stated Hamilton. “But, in this area, the trespassing inhabitants have severely degraded the land, and water quality, and put in a rock dam that blocks the fish migration. They have deteriorated the creek banks, and a lot of brush and trees that have been cut down and removed.”

This front loader brings out another truck full of refuse taken out of the camp.

Using the front-loader, workers tore down lean-to structures, and pulled out mattresses, furniture – and a mountain of trash.

Hamilton said other reasons for moving people out the encampment were for their own safety. “There are many inherent dangers living this close to a major highway,” he said.

Asked if crime and neighbors’ complaints about area transients encouraged ODOT to take action, Hamilton thought a moment before responding.

“They’re a lot of ‘moving parts’ to this [action], and many quarters of private public sector being involved with this. Getting this started is not a quick or easy process. Any effort like this requires many jurisdictions to be involved.”

At least one homeless advocate was in the area speaking to media, complaining about the “short notice” given for the clean-out project, and “destroying the campers’ belongings”.

A worker hikes another bag of personal belongings into a truck, ready to be taken to the ODOT maintenance yard.

“When closing down an area, open to the public for camping, a 19-day notice is given,” Hamilton responded. “This area is and has been marked ‘No Trespassing’ [all along]; so that longer notice period does not apply.”

About the belongings of the homeless being destroyed or confiscated, Hamilton said, “We err on the side of considering things ‘belongings’ instead of refuse. These belongings are being held at the ODOT Lawnfield Maintenance Yard [9200 SE Lawnfield Road, (971) 673-6200] for at least 30 days.”

As the clean-out continued, other crew members repaired cut fencing and installed new fences, and also posted additional “No Trespass” signs.

As ODOT workers walk into the area with new “No Trespass” signs, reluctant-to-leave homeless campers move out.

“I feel a little sad to see all these people being moved out,” commented neighbor Francine Schindler, as she dismounted from her bicycle.

“But, at the same time, I feel a bit safer riding the Springwater Trail with fewer of them here in the area,” she added. “It seemed like so many of them were drugged up and angry. I hope this pushes them to get help.”

© 2013 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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