It used to be a community of sorts, a haven for some of Umatilla’s most down and out.
Now the stretch of woods along the Umatilla River between the high school and River Road is quiet. The improvised homeless camp that used to be nestled against the river banks is gone. In its place is a red and white sign proclaiming “No camping,” the “N” defiantly whited out.
City Manager Bob Ward said the sign is part of the city’s enforcement of an ordinance passed Sept. 1 that banned living in tents inside city limits. After people living near the river were put on notice by the city that they needed to move or be cited, Ward said the camp was abandoned and its tenants seemed to have moved upriver out of the city.
“When they moved out what remained was not a pleasant sight,” he said.
Ward said the city’s public works department had been cleaning out the debris, including 14 empty propane tanks, at least some of which were suspected stolen property.
He said law enforcement had tried to make sure those who were contacted about moving out of the city were given information about available help, including the free Kayak Public Transit bus that can take people from Umatilla to Hermiston for a visit to the Agape House or other resources.
“I really don’t want to in any way diminish the plight of the homeless population, but this is not just someone struggling to survive in the woods,” Ward said. “These are places that are unsafe to live due to illegal activity and unhygienic conditions.”
At the same time the Umatilla Police Department was directing people to move out of the camps along the Umatilla River, a private property owner in Hermiston decided to clear out trees along the Hermiston Ditch behind Wal-Mart that had often given shelter to some of Hermiston’s homeless population.
Hermiston Police Department Chief Jason Edmiston said the burning of the trees along the ditch was not initiated by law enforcement, but the property owner did contact the department to ask if officers could be sent beforehand to notify people of the plan to destroy the trees. Edmiston said the department assisted in notifying people they were on private property.
David Hughes of the Agape House said when cities or property owners undertake an effort to clear out a homeless camp it may take care of that particular site, but the people who were living there almost always just move to a different place.
“Unfortunately that does not solve the problem. You need a long-range plan to get them off drugs and off the streets,” he said.
He said many chronically homeless people have issues with drugs and mental health, but unfortunately the state hasn’t given communities the resources to fund mental health programs at the level they are needed.
As the holiday season approaches and people are in a more giving mood, Hughes said a donation to an established charity such as the Agape House, Salvation Army or a church can do more to help the area’s homeless residents than giving money to a person asking for it on a street corner.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.