PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Enid Griffin is one of a group of dragon boat racers who loves to be on the pristine waters of the Willamette River early in the morning. But she and others routinely come across garbage and waste along the riverbank from homeless camp sites along the Springwater Corridor trail.
“It’s very sad because we say we’re a city that works,” Griffin told KOIN 6 News. “Well, that is definitely not working.”
The homeless camps along the mile-long stretch of land off the trail sprang up during 2014. Months after they were kicked out from the spot along the east side of the river just south of the Ross Island Bridge, most of their mess has not been cleaned up despite multiple complaints. Much of the garbage is now in the river.
The Golden Dragon boat racers told KOIN 6 News they’ve tried several times to get help from the city without any luck. So they attempted to clean up the mess themselves.
“The problem is the trash and the problem is the lack of response from all of the government agencies that we’ve contacted,” boater Dennis Gavin said.
He said they collected about 300 bags of waste, but it barely made a dent.
“This includes human waste. There’s needles…a variety of garbage and bicycle parts and shopping carts,” he said.
Griffin added there were drug needles, “and nobody is doing anything about it.”
Portland Parks & Recreation officials told them not to go back and clean up because it was dangerous. However, after months of waiting for action, the dragon boaters said they are fed up with the city’s leaders.
“I’ve written emails to all the (city) commissioners and the mayor’s office” and hasn’t heard from anyone, Gavin said.
Mayor Charlie Hales and officials from the Parks & Rec department declined an interview request on this topic from KOIN 6 News.
But mayoral spokesperson Dana Haynes said the trash is a concern. “A bigger concern for us is that we have families that are out right now without shelter. But, yes, the damage to the river or the damage to the land absolutely is a big issue.”
The city’s last estimate shwed 1700 people are sleeping on the streets or camping in Portland’s city limits each night. The shelters are over their capacity.
But some, like William Napier, said they don’t want to stay in the city’s shelters anyway.
“There’s constant threats of violence” at the shelters, Napier said. “When I woke up in the morning, my whole backpack was gone.”
Napier now has a tent up the riverbank, closer to the Springwater Corridor trail after the water began rising. He said that’s less dangerous than a shelter.
“I wouldn’t send nobody there,” he said. “If I could I would send them somewhere a lot safer.”
Haynes admitted that’s how some homeless people feel.
“It’s true that some people would rather be outside than in shelters. It’s true that some people don’t feel safe in shelters,” he said.
Since 2013, Hales has increased funding to address homeless issues, but his office admits the homeless problem continues to grow.
“We’re going to continue to put more money into it as we have since Charlie Hales got here,” Haynes said. “I’m not sure that’s going to solve it.”
Camps not cleaned up
About 40 camp sites housed about 60 people along the Springwater Corridor trail. An email from Parks & Rec said that area was picked up three times in 2014 — but still there is trash and garbage.
Complicating the issue, Parks & Rec officials said, is the land is owned by different people.
Willamette Riverkeeper Executive Director Travis Williams said the situation grows desperate as the river rises.
“The water has come up pretty tremendously,” Williams said. “Most of these camps, when I look at this now, where they were originally placed is now underwater.”
He said he has no ideas how many tons of garbage, furniture and other items are now below the river’s surface — but it’s causing problems.
“It’s a basic water quality concern with the human waste. We get E. coli that could be present which is an indicator of other pathogens, make people sick, all the other plastics are very problematic for fish and other wildlife that utilize the river, call it home,” he told KOIN 6 News.
Parks & Rec officials said the next camp clean up date has not yet been scheduled. It depends on water levels, weather conditions and legal constraints. They also work to connect the campers with various social services.
But the dragon boat racers like Dennis Gavin see this is an issue that needs to be immediately addresses.
“This is all our river,” Gavin said. “Somebody in the government has to organize this to get all the trash out of it.”