‘Every time we find a home they kick us out’: The story of a sweep at an Indian School Road camp

Indian School Road campers pack their belongings on Nov. 16 as local law enforcement officers watch over. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)

Less than a half-mile east of Keizer Station, on the outskirts of Salem, sits a homeless camp. The camp is located along Indian School Road on land owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).

At 8 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 15, residents at the camp were told that they had until 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 16 to vacate the premises. ODOT calls these sweeps of camps “site restorations.”

Between Nov. 2 and Nov. 17, ODOT carried out eight site restorations in Marion County. This is the story of one. 

Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 9 a.m. 

Residents of an Indian School Road camp race against the clock. Occupants must leave by 10 a.m. — or risk losing their homes. 

“Is there something you can do to help us?” a woman asks me. “We just need more time. We will move, we just need more time. I can’t lose my RV.”

The woman’s RV is trapped. It’s been parked at the end of Indian School Road for around four months, she says. In front of it sits four cars, all of which look like they haven’t moved in months. To the left of the RV is Indian School Road, blocked by thick metal poles installed the day before. Once the cleanup effort is complete, a metal rope will be strung through the poles to ensure no one can camp on the land going forward. 

ODOT officials, Oregon State Police and Salem Police stand along the road and watch the campers.

“It seems like every time we find a home they want to kick us out,” said Tim, a man staying at the camp. “I’m tired of getting used to a spot and then getting kicked out just because of other people’s wrongdoings or people being lazy.”

Next to Tim is his bike, which carries his belongings strapped on the back. I ask him if I can take a photo of his bike. “No,” Tim says. “It isn’t something I’m proud of.”

Metal poles installed by ODOT made it difficult for some campers to move their vehicles. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)

To a passerby, the camp looks like a makeshift junkyard. Nearly three dozen abandoned cars and RVs have accumulated over the months, with junk filling in the gaps. Scattered throughout the derelict vehicles, however, are homes of the unhoused.

Sara, the woman with the entrapped RV, has been living at the Indian School Road camp for the past four months. She is a survivor of domestic abuse and said she became homeless earlier this year after leaving her abuser. 

Sara and Tim did not want their locations revealed to others and asked that their real names not be used in the story. Both names are pseudonyms.

Having worked as a home caregiver in the past, Sara said she’s been looking for work and housing for months. She said Simonka Place, a Keizer-based women’s shelter, has been full whenever she’s inquired. 

Kathy Smith, the director of Simonka Place, said the shelter has turned away 659 women and 279 children from September 2020 to August 2021 due to being at capacity.

Sara said a friend gave her the RV a couple of months ago “just so I’d have a roof over my head.” Like many of the residents of the camp, Sara’s RV is her only protection from the unforgiving Oregon winter. If she’s unable to move it, she said she’ll have no choice but to live on the sidewalks in downtown Salem. 

“They are going to take our homes away from us and then we will just be bodies on the street,” Sara said. 

Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 10 a.m.

Residents cram belongings into the back of their cars. Hoods of cars are popped throughout the camp — owners leaned over engines that haven’t started in months. One couple yells out in relief as their car sputters to a start. 

State and local officials dispute that the clearing of the camp was sudden. Angela Beers-Seydel, a spokesperson for ODOT, said that officials notified campers through camp postings on Nov. 2.

While two signs warn of the consequences of trespassing, there are no postings visible at the camp that indicate residents were warned of the removal before Nov. 15. 

ODOT said the camp needed to be cleared because “we had received concerns from the farmer that access to their farm was repeatedly blocked and concerns from Chemawa Indian School about the safety of their students following police activity at the site.” 

ODOT officials, Salem Police and Oregon State Police all participated in the camp sweep. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)

Delores Pigsley, chairman of the Confederate Tribes of Siletz Indians, said she’s tried to have Indian School Road cleaned up for months. Pigsley said that the camp has become a safety concern since students returned to school in September.

A groundskeeper at the school was attacked by a homeless person earlier this year, according to Pigsley, and two of the school’s buses had their windows smashed. The camp sits just outside of the school’s fences and less than a half-mile from the Chemawa Cemetery.

“It’s a concern for the students but also I have family buried at the cemetery and I want to feel safe when I park and go into the cemetery,” said Pigsley.

While Pigsley wants the camp dispersed, she also wants the couches, mattresses and other trash that lines Indian School Road to be cleaned up.

“It’s not the homeless,” said Pigsley. “Two guys in a pickup were dumping a mattress the other day. They were dumping it out the back of their truck.”

She added, “I do feel bad about the homeless people. They need to be punished but someone needs to help them, they can’t just keep moving them and moving them. If you don’t have a place to go to the bathroom or throw your garbage, they throw it on the ground. It’s not just their problem, it’s our problem.”

Tim, whose bike I’d asked to take a photo of earlier, doesn’t dispute that trash has overtaken Indian School Road. 

“Not all of us do this messy (expletive). I think it’s filthy, ya know, I personally try to help clean up whenever I come around. But that is something they’ll need to control if they do want to be accepted anywhere,” he says.

But Tim says that a lot of the trash that lines Indian School Road hasn’t come from campers.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh there’s homeless people, let’s just dump it there and make them look bad,’” said Tim. “Does it look like we have time to bring couches and stuff like that out here?” 

Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 12 p.m.

10 a.m. has come and gone. An inmate crew has been brought in to clean up trash. ODOT has begun towing vehicles but Sara, whose RV is located on the opposite end of the camp, was told she still has a couple of hours before the cleanup crew reaches her. With the help of others, Sara had been able to clear a path of escape for her RV — which still won’t start.

I ask Sara where she’ll go if she’s able to move the RV. “I don’t know,” she says. “Wherever I can park it.”

Matt Maceira, executive director at Be Bold Street Ministries, says there’s a variety of factors that go into choosing a place to camp, but most often it comes down to wherever there’s room. Maceira struggled with homelessness for 10 years before starting Be Bold Street Ministries in 2014. 

“I want to show others that there is hope,” says Maceira.

Maceira walks around the camp to talk with campers and offer a helping hand. He leaves at one point, returning 30 minutes later with a pair of size 11 sneakers for a barefooted man. Maceira said Be Bold Street Ministries tries to be present whenever people are being removed to help with the transition. 

“If people have to leave things, we want to help them replace those belongings,” Maceira says. “We also want to make sure they have a safe place to sleep.”

A camper works to get his car started on Nov. 16. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)

Two of these location restorations occurred in Marion County in the summer, according to ODOT. Tim says that sweeps are occurring more frequently and that he’s heard that officials are “clearing out Marion County.” 

ODOT said in their statement that Nov. 2 and Nov. 17, they restored eight property locations impacted by camping.

“We are responsible for property and its management. We all know that there are many reasons why people choose locations to camp,” said Beers-Seydel. “That’s why we work closely with our community service partners anytime people make the choice to camp on ODOT properties.”

Monday, Nov. 22 at 12 p.m. 

Every vehicle, piece of trash and camper has been removed from the Indian School Road lot. Fresh dirt has taken the place of the campers. A metal gate ensures that they won’t return anytime soon.

According to the City of Salem’s website, the site restoration was a success.

“Indian School Road. On November 15, ODOT with Police and City crews, cleaned the area including trash from illegal dumping in the area,” reads an update on the website’s “Tracking Progress on Homelessness Efforts” page. 

A half-mile north of where the camp was, 18 RVs and cars line Indian School Road. 

The cars sit parked a few feet from the road. Passing cars veer into the left lane to give them space. A school resource officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs walks along the procession of parked cars and takes photos. 

Many of the cars parked along the road are the same as the ones at the camp last week. 

Sara’s RV is one. 

News tip? Contact reporter Joey Cappelletti at [email protected] or 616-610-3093.