Homelessness has hidden costs for city

A camping site found in a Keizer park several years ago.

In 2018, members of the Keizer Police Department Community Response Unit launched a plan to be more proactive in connecting with the city’s homeless population.  

“Members of CRU made more specific efforts to check the parks during the summer and continued to notice a large number of ‘entrenched’ transients with large and dirty camps,” wrote Officer Darsy Olafson in a recent report on the two-year effort. 

When the push began, the CRU’s three officers spent about 30 hours per week attempting to locate and communicate with “camping” homeless people and encouraging them to move out of the places where they had hidden their campsites. 

Once contact was made, CRU officers informed campers that the area would be visited regularly and any applicable laws would be enforced. In many cases, the roughly 40 entrenched camps were vacated. It also became known that there was a low tolerance for homeless camping in Keizer.

“It’s a little bit different now. We have people that sleep and then move, but they don’t set up camps,” Copeland said. 

By last month, CRU officers were only spending about eight hours a week on the task, but actions by the city of Salem to ban sidewalk camping were having an impact.

“In just a two week period, there was a noticeable increase in the number of subjects sleeping in doorways and on sidewalks without tents,” Olafson wrote. 

Lt. Andrew Copeland said impact of the camping ban was nearly instantaneous, but not in the way some might expect. 

“We haven’t seen an uptick in camping or campsites, but we’ve seen several people who are known primarily as Salem residents walking around the city,” Copeland said. “For example, we encountered one guy from Salem yesterday who has been contacted more than 30 times by Salem police officers and arrested numerous times.”

Copeland said Keizer officers got the man to agree to self-commit to the Psychiatric Crisis Center in Salem, “but it will probably only be a week or two before we see him again.” 

Keizer’s city council passed a similar ban unanimously at its meeting Monday, Jan. 6.

When Keizertimes talked with Copeland last week about some of the hidden costs of homelessness, one of the projects on his desk was drafting a flowchart to inform other Keizer police officers about the appropriate and applicable laws in each of a number of scenarios. 

“The main thing is we try to treat all of our transient population very nicely and we have great compliance in getting them to move along when we ask them to,” Copeland said. “The big push right now is trying to get everyone who wants to be housed in some sort of housing and we are working with community partners to make that happen.”

Additional time dedicated to law enforcement is just one of the ways that homelessness creates strains on public systems. Keizer’s limited budget and lack of larger city amenities, such as a hospital, keep some of the associated costs at arm’s length, but homelessness also impacts the city’s park system, said Robert Johnson, Keizer parks supervisor. 

“We don’t typically find permanent camps, but we end up cleaning up a lot of the stuff that’s left behind. Our garbage cans are constantly being filled with what looks like remnants of people who are probably living in their cars,” Johnson said. 

For health and safety reasons, parks employees take extra precautions when dealing with garbage precisely because they don’t always know what’s might be sticking out of it, which detracts from the time available to perform other duties. 

In December, parks employees discovered what appeared to be a temporary camp set up on and under the play structure of Willamette Manor park. In addition to hauling away the typical detritus, like sleeping bags and trash, two bicycles were left behind, along with numerous blankets and a tarp among other items. 

“It appeared to only be two people, but two people can carry a lot of stuff,” Johnson said. “I think we are trying to get used to this being the new norm even though it pains me to say it that way.”

Parks employees work closely with Keizer police officers and the city’s code enforcement officer to put homeless people in contact with support services.