Last week, workers detained by the Oregon Department of Corrections removed tons of trash and debris from illegal encampments in local Oregon Department of Transportation rights-of-way.
The cleanup began June 1 and focused on two main areas around Newport – on Hwy 101 near the Walmart at approximately mile post 139 and near mile post 2 on Hwy 20 near the sign Newport city limit.
News-Times staff encountered cleanup crews on the morning of June 2 – inmates on contract with the Salem Corrections Department were on the shoulder of Highway 20 loading bags onto a dump truck . A supervisor said crews had hauled four truckloads out of the woods the day before and three so far that day.
They picked up everything from waste paper to refrigerators and other appliances, and even had to dismantle a cabin. The supervisor said they left some campsites uncleaned because the notices weren’t posted there yet.
Angela Beers Seydel, ODOT’s public information officer, said the work was part of the department’s routine site restoration that it was overdue after the pandemic, meaning some encampments had the chance of growing up big enough.
“We’re still in catch-up mode,” Beers Seydel said. “These are just normal operations, where we look at our property and see where people are camping, we hear from people with concerns about camping, and we contract with the Department of Corrections to come out and do site restoration.”
Crews encountered several sprawling encampments as many were left alone to honor Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice regarding the homeless population during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These guidelines indicated that it was best for them and for the whole community that they could maintain a single point of contact,” Beers Seydel said. “So unless there’s a really serious reason – like somebody’s in danger right now – for the most part we haven’t disturbed the camps or asked people to leave.”
Now returning to a more typical routine, the department is working closely with local law enforcement and social service agencies, the ODOT spokeswoman said, scheduling cleanups in part around the availability of these agencies and posting a notice in the camps 10 days in advance. Occupants of restored sites in Newport left the encampments before the cleanup, she said.
Anything that is not obvious trash left behind by occupants is stored in the ODOT maintenance facility for at least 30 days. Contact information for the recovery of personal effects is posted on the cleaning site.
“We have a lot of properties there,” Beers Seydel said. “It’s not designed for camping, and most, I think people would agree, it’s not safe for people to camp. We do not have the infrastructure to perform any monitoring, so it is our responsibility to restore it for use by the transport system.
She said they had recently seen the potential danger from the right-of-way encampments, referring to an incident in late March in which a car ran off Highway 99 in Salem and nearby tents, killing four. people. The driver of the car was charged with manslaughter and drunk driving.
ODOT confirmed at the time that the encampment was one of 16 in Salem due to be cleared before the fatal crash, and site restorations had been carried out weekly in the city since January.