Keizer’s invisible population

The issue of homelessness is not new to the Salem-Keizer area and, similar to other issues Oregon faces, COVID has exacerbated it. 

A small group from Code Enforcement, Public Works as well as Keizer Police officers have been tasked to address the issue here in Keizer. 

They have been busy. 

“We had a pretty good-sized camp down at Keizer Rapids just last week (Nov. 14),” said Ben Crosby, Keizer’s only code enforcement officer. 

He also spoke to another encampment removed on Nov. 27 at the corner of Cherry Avenue and Manbrin Drive belonging to one of Keizer’s chronically homeless people, or as Crosby describes them, “regulars” as well as the process they went through to remove the tent. 

According to Jimmy Jones, Executive Director of the Mid- Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA), the issue of homelessness in Keizer is not new. 

“You see a homeless population that is consistently in Keizer,” said Jones. 

According to the Community Response Unit (CRU) and Code Enforcement, the amount of homless people in Keizer fluctuates between 14-18 individuals. 

“If you go and look at the homeless population in Woodburn, [a] similar size city, it is closer to 85 or maybe a hundred,” Jones continued. 

Jones described how the homeless population in Keizer has been smaller, but stable “to the extent that if it decreases or there are only [a few] factors that cause it to decrease. 

“We shelter somebody, we house somebody, or they’re deceased.” 

Jones mentioned how many are from the community themselves, which is often why they choose to remain. “They are folks who have family in Keizer. Who lived in Keizer, who went to McNary. They have long-term connections to the community.” 

When asked about the primary cause of homelessness, Jones gave a quick answer, economic. 

According to a 2022 Census data report, Oregon has the nation’s highest rate of chronic homelessness, often due to a combination of underfunded and understaffed housing programs as well as high rental costs, leading to people living unhoused for longer. 

“We’re on the precipice of the problem getting worse in the next five years,” Jones went on. 

“We had COVID [and] the economic mess that created. But then we had the wildfires, not just here in Marion County, but down south as well. That created a huge number of new homeless people living in RVs. There’s a lot of RVs, a lot of campers. Then the rental crisis hit.”

All combined, these issues are likely to continue to contribute to the homeless population. 

“I think you can expect Keizer [to gain] a larger homeless population. It’s probably going to look more like 35 [people] in the next couple of years and that will be a challenge for the enforcement mechanisms that are currently in place.” 

According to the US Office of Policy Development and Research, there are currently around 14,650 homeless in Oregon, a 22.5% increase since 2020 and one of the largest increases nationwide. 

Homelessness exists in a variety of ways, and many mistake the issue as only a long-term one. The types of homelessness include transitional, episodic, chronic and hidden. 

Chronically homeless people are those we often see in the street. In Keizer, “those 18 are high needs homeless individuals,” Jones noted. “They are chronically homeless. They’ve been homeless for a year or more. They have a disabling condition. It could be substance, it could be a mental health condition, it could be a physical health problem.” 

People in this category of homelessness are often unable to get off of the street by themselves due to the disabling condition they possess and are often older. 

Transitional homelessness revolves around someone experiencing a sudden catastrophe— such as divorce, a health condition or domestic abuse—resulting in a period of homelessness lasting less than a year. 

Those dealing with this may live in a vehicle or be in a transitional program and have a job but be unable to afford rent at the time. 

Episodic homelessness deals with those who experience several periods of homelessness in a year. This category describes many homeless youths as well as those with a disabling mental or physical condition. 

People in this category may have a seasonal or contract job but not make enough to afford housing. This group of people can quickly transition to being chronically homeless. 

The last type of homelessness is hidden. This category includes mostly young people who do not have housing themselves but instead may live with others. These people can also become chronically homeless easily when losing access to shelter. 

The Ride

After a ride along with Crosby on a cold, wet November morning two things have become clear. Regardless of appearances, homelessness is in Keizer and despite those tirelessly working to address it, it is no closer to being solved. 

For three hours we rode around, searching for various signs of someone setting up a camp such as littered trash, grass pushed down into a path as well as tents. 

The checks began with a ride to Keizer Rapids Park, looping around looking for any sign of someone having stayed overnight. 

Previously, a camp had been removed from there though nobody was found during our search. We then made our way to Wallace House Park. We walked through the park and along its limits until we reached the bank of the Willamette. 

Again, nobody was found. C r o s b y noted that we may n o t find anyo n e n e a r b y a s the crew tasked with a d d r e s s i n g these issues, Crosby, Public Works and the Community Response Unit (CRU), had recently moved an encampment from that area as well. 

We next made our way to Palma Ceia. Crosby described how this park, which is also along the Willamette, was overgrown and provided a lot of cover to those that may wish to camp there. 

To prevent this behavior, the city has been cutting down large swaths of bushes near the river’s edge in an attempt to make these areas less desirable to campers. 

This is commonly referred to as hostile architecture, or a standard of building or using the environment in specific ways to discourage certain behaviors. 

Our next several stops were along the city’s main arterial, River Road, at businesses with a Trespass Letter of Consent (TLC). 

These are contracts that businesses or property owners enter into with the city stating they consent to having police enforce trespassing laws at their location which serves as the main method the city uses to address homelessness in public areas. 

Eventually we passed by Darrell Gibson, a chronically homeless Keizer citizen, and stopped to talk to him. The small, bearded 56-year-old gave a twisting story about his past as a structural mechanic who has worked on dams, bridges and the I-5 corridor. 

He spoke about his divorce from his wife as an attempt to better get along together and how someone who owed him money was jailed, therefore leaving him worse off. The story was broken up, coming in sections that did not precede or lead into each other, making the understanding of it difficult. 

Often, prolonged homelessness can severally impact someone’s physical and mental health. 

A 2023 study by the National Institutes of Health found statistically significant results when comparing the effect of homelessness on various parts of someone’s cognitive ability such as someone’s diminished ability to properly make life-altering choices, higher rates of depression as well as a drastically lowered ability to conduct proper conflict resolution. 

Chronically homeless people, such as Darrell, often begin to drift towards these issues the longer their condition doesn’t change. 

Around the corner was another Keizer regular named “Colton.” In his early 20s, he was wearing a black raincoat, jeans and well-worn black construction boots and carried a ripped hiking backpack with a sleeping mat strapped onto the back. 

He did not want to talk to us and chose to instead keep smoking his cigarette and watching traffic. 

Crosby noted that he has been homeless for several years mainly due to issues with alcohol. He will work and make money then spend it all on alcohol and spend his time on the streets. 

Crosby described about how he keeps to himself and rarely causes issues, except when he is drunk. 

Next, we went to Keizer Station and found another tent set up behind a business. Keizer Police officer Esteban Perez was called in to help check around the area though nobody was found there at the time. 

After a brief chat about checking back at the same location later, we went on to our final location, a light yellowish-green abandoned house on the corner of Lockhaven Drive and McLeod Street. 

In the back of the house, an awning and cement are slowly succumbing to the overgrowth of thorn bushes. There is a great deal of trash, broken glass and torn clothes as well. 

We noticed the wood panel covering the back door had been torn down and the bottom pane of glass on the back door kicked out. 

Keizer Police were again called with two officers showing up and moving to back to enter the building. Officers Ben Johnson and Eli Kuzmenko approached the door and identified themselves as KPD. 

They went in with weapons drawn to investigate if anyone was in the house. They were in the residence for around 10 minutes then came out through the backdoor. 

Coming out, they informed us that there were several beds and sleeping bags set up in various places around the house though nobody was currently in there. 

Crosby boarded up the backdoor, noting that this would require him to come back again to check the house for people that day and later days as well. 

It was also noted by Crosby that this was not the first time this house has been broken into like this so it could be used as a shelter. 

Moving Forward 

How this issue is dealt with moving forward is important as, without careful care, it has the potential to grow beyond what the city can manage, increasing costs on the citizens along the way. 

One interesting way involves interested citizens partnering with the city, similar to a neighborhood association, and create a series of empathy squads. 

The goal of these groups would revolve around aiding departments like code enforcement by creating a follow-up system so that the folks Crosby and Keizer Police meet on the street are continually interacted with and, most importantly, allow them to be found when resources become available. 

Another way is for organizations that help the homeless to apply for state funding grants as well as the numerous grants given out by p r iva t e entities. 

The MWVCAA recently received $5 million from the Bezos Day One Fund, a $2 billion fund given out to agencies around the country to help address homelessness. 

J o n e s noted that the money was earmarked for family homelessness, specifically as a fund to connect people with landlords. “We’re gonna get them into apartments. We’re gonna pay their rent for however long is necessary to get them stable.” 

When asked what Keizer can do to remove its unsheltered citizens, he gave a simple answer, house them. 

“[City leadership] could identify an affordable housing developer who would build an affordable housing complex, perhaps in partnership with Salem Housing Authority or Marion County. [Partnered] with one of those two entities, [you] could create a small project inside of the Keizer City government that was focused on connecting those people with a priority referral” Jone said. 

“They can build 20 units. Get an affordable housing complex in there that is based on a homeless referral system. The city of Salem has chosen to do that. Other cities have chosen to do that, even smaller cities, and it will work.”