The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) says that in the future it will alert local social service agencies prior to conducting “sweeps” of homeless camps.
In January, in response to complaints from nearby retailers, ODOT personnel assisted by Oregon State Police disturbed a homeless encampment under a Highway 22 bridge. They asked people staying there to leave just days before the annual “Point in Time” (PIT) count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people.
The PIT count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to take place on a single day in January. Since 2003, HUD has required Continuums of Care – regional or local planning bodies that coordinate housing and services funding for the homeless – to conduct the count.
Homeless advocates were concerned by the disruption, worrying that the homeless individuals who left the area ODOT cleared may not have been counted this year or that the disruption may have increased the difficulty for homeless service providers to complete an accurate count.
ODOT spokesman Lou Torres says the agency had no idea the count was coming up. “If we had known,” Torres says, “we would not have done the homeless camp cleanup during the week of the count. Our district did not know it was happening.”
In the future, Torres says ODOT will prevent anything similar from happening again. Torres has “provided a list of social service and government contacts for our district managers to call ahead, before it posts the 10-day notice at the camp site.”
ODOT is “modifying our processes to ensure a commitment to collaboration and coordination with local homeless service providers, where those services exist, before posting areas and removing property,” according to Torres. “This will ensure that our timing does not cause unanticipated issues and also provide an opportunity for social service agencies to provide services to those affected if they choose to do so.”
Jimmy Jones, director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency’s ARCHES project, is pleased to hear about ODOT’s new procedure. “It would be great if we had notice in the future,” he says, “so all those people are assessed ahead of time and on our housing waiting list.”
ARCHES is a center designed to provide referral and services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness and those at-risk of becoming homeless. Jones says the PIT count helps agencies like his get funding and offer appropriate services. Although there is no direct dollar-for-head correlation between numbers of people counted and resources allocated to agencies like ARCHES, “it is vitally important to get a good accurate count so we can make an accurate case for funding.”
Marion and Polk counties cover more area than the state of Rhode Island, Jones notes, adding that, “these counts are important so a community can understand the full size of the population and can plan to make good public policy” on the basis of factual numbers.
ODOT was within its rights to clear the camp and homeless individuals from areas when it owns the right of way, as it did in this case. After receiving a complaint, the agency must provide a 10-day notice to campers before cleaning up sites. “We do it for primarily safety reasons,” Torres says. “In doing so, we comply with state law and followed our normal procedures.”
Torres says clearing campsites is not something ODOT enjoys. “Our staff that are involved in these homeless cleanups get very little satisfaction in doing this work,” he says. “It is probably the most difficult maintenance activity. It is very sad situation. Unfortunately, sometimes ODOT and law enforcement come across as insensitive and uncaring when we are cleaning up the campsite. That is far from the truth. We are just carrying out an unpleasant task on behalf of the public.”