PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Can you really call it camping? A homeless outpost off Exit 18 has sprouted dwellings with plywood walls, tarp roofs and even a makeshift chimney made from a discarded exhaust pipe.
Since December, deputies with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office have prepped for a massive clean-up of the wetlands on the east bank of the Sandy River in Troutdale. On Friday, March 17, they were only able to scratch the surface.
“These camps are too big and (have) too much garbage,” Sgt. Steve Bevens said at the scene. “People who want to come down here don’t feel safe, because some of these people are aggressive.”
About 15 people live in the Sandy River Delta Park — which locals call the Thousand Acres dog park — though some transients build multiple camps and others leave shelters behind after moving on for good.
In total, the number of campsites has risen from 20 to 25 since late 2016, when law enforcement first targeted the camps for removal.
“Then winter hit,” explained Sgt. Bevens. “We decided we weren’t going to move them when it was 20 degrees out and snowing.”
This Friday, ten inmates hauled tents, coolers, clothing barrels and bags of debris, filling most of a 40-cubic-yard dumpster.
“It’s better than being in jail,” remarked one prisoner, rain hitting his knit cap.
The bulk of the campsites, however, were unreachable by convicts or deputies riding 4-wheelers.
Water flowing under the Interstate 84 overpass has flooded the northeastern portion of the park, creating a waist-high stream that separates most of the homeless camps from the paved trailhead.
After a quick wade, a tour of the area showed numerous signs of permanent habitation.
• Residents have constructed lean-tos, dug firepits and raised an American flag at one location.
• An enclosure made out of tarps was roughly the size of an R.V., with a metal chimney providing ventilation.
• A large square pit lined with wood contained enough spare parts for dozens of bikes. Brackish water seeped in from the mud floor.
“There’s low-impact camping, where you throw up a tent (in order) to stay warm and dry for a night,” said Sgt. Bevens. “That’s one thing. Nobody’s going to give anybody a hard time about that.”
“The problem is when they starting building,” he continued. “They have garbage. A lot of it looks like it comes from a dumpster — who knows where it comes from?”
A man with a shotgun was arrested here a week ago after deputies discovered he had a County warrant for failing to pay child support. Sgt. Bevens identified the man as Christopher Plummer, age 30.
A search of court records produced no one named Plummer with that specific conviction, though The Outlook interviewed a man who gave the same name at a homeless shelter in January, 2016.
“(How about) free liver,” he said, when asked what he thought of the “transient” label.
“How about citizen? That works well,” he responded.
Police used to enter homeless camps “with puffed-up chests” and a “gang-buster mentality,” but interactions have improved, Plummer said while staying at the Red Barn shelter on Glisan Street.
In fact, MCSO has launched a robust new program to address endemic camping. The Homeless Outreach and Programs Engagement, or HOPE, aims to connect campers with resources across the region. Providing copies of the homeless paper “Street Roots” is one start.
Two patrol deputies at the park have already volunteered for assignment, while Sgt. Bevens would lead the special group, if funding is allocated during a budgeting period in July.
Few campers were visible on Friday. A man lying under the Interstate 84 overpass declined to open his eyes or respond to questions.
Another unhoused person, who gave his name as John, told deputies he hadn’t seen a man named Chris for a few days.
“A couple came out here last night,” he reported. “They weren’t camping, they were just going through people’s stuff.”
Clean-up wrapped at Sandy River Delta Park around 1:30 p.m. on Friday, with a majority of the campsites untouched. Bevens said another inmate sanitation crew would return next weekend.