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Years of illegal camping in Gresham Woods leads to destruction of natural, city property

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - This abandoned campsite is typical of dozens of similar sites found and cleared in the 60-acre Gresham Woods open space just south of Southeast Powell Boulevard. The city of Gresham has taken the unprecedented step of fencing and closing 60 acres along the Springwater Trail because a large homeless population camping there is destroying the area and threatening neighbors.

The city-owned land, called Gresham Woods, sits between Southwest Pleasant Drive and Towle Avenue. It’s now closed to the public.

Pressure from nearby homeowners and environmental advocates forced the city to step in and preserve hundreds of thousands of dollars of plants being destroyed by homeless campers.

Before the fence was installed this week, signs of homeless campers were easy to spot by following offshoots of the Springwater Trail. Small clearings in the otherwise pristine woods were littered with trash, clothing, human waste and even a hand-made hatchet crafted out of a stick, sharp metal and a shoelace.

Although the homeless problem is escalating to crisis levels in the Portland area, completely closing a piece of public land is unprecedented.

“There isn’t anybody in the Portland region that has done this,” Mayor Shane Bemis said. “That’s pretty aggressive.”

Gresham is acting on a section in the city code that authorizes the city manager to close any city park, trail or open space to protect the public’s health, safety or welfare, or for the protection of the park, trail or open space. People caught in the park can be charged with a misdemeanor and fined up to $1,000.

Environmental destruction

For months, the Southwest Neighborhood Association has complained to the City Council to do something about the homeless campers. Some residents said they feared for their property and their lives.

Then this month, the city’s Department of Environmental Services stepped in with equally grave descriptions of the campers’ impact.

Kathy Majidi, program coordinator for Gresham Natural Resources, said in a Feb. 10 memo that the money being spent repairing the area could not keep up with the rate at which it is being destroyed.

“Along the Springwater Trail, for instance, in the majority of areas where we have removed invasive blackberry and installed native trees and shrubs, we are seeing moderate to severe impacts — in some instances all plantings have been destroyed,” Majidi said. “We’re spending excessive staff time responding to reports of illegal activity and dumping in areas of active restoration sites.”

Over 15 years, Majidi said the city spent $350,000 in local, state and federal funds to restore the area. Now there is “full destruction” of newly planted areas as well as damage to mature trees.

“The degree to which we are needing to provide response to this damage is continuing to divert staff time and budgets for purposes of cleanup and site stabilization; this is negating our ability to progress on our legally required efforts to establish healthy riparian corridors that can effectively provide stream shade and our water quality benefits,” Majidi said. “Additionally, our cadre of volunteers ... are feeling unsafe entering these areas due to repeated findings of biohazards (strewn garbage, hypodermic needles and human waste) found at these sites.”

Gresham police also say they are busy with frequent calls to Gresham Woods.

In June, July and August 2014, police said there were 23 calls related to homeless issues in Gresham Woods. During the same months of 2015, there were 41 calls, including sounds of gunshots, shouting, domestic violence, concerns about a baby living in a camp, a large fire in a field, garbage and drunken behavior.

Gresham public information officer John Rasmussen said one call last summer led police to find a registered sexual offender living in a homeless camp 75 feet from a child. Police arrested the man.

Residents fight back

Scott Moulton has lived on Southwest 14th Avenue since he was 11. Now 54, he’s doing everything he can to protect his home.

At first the disturbances from the homeless camps were easy enough to ignore, Moulton said. There was some garbage floating in Johnson Creek or the smell of smoke from a campfire drifted into his house during the summer. But then Moulton started hearing sounds of a toddler in the woods, men screaming, parties at all hours and one night, even gunshots.

As summer dried up the creek, the camps moved closer and closer to his property to where he could hear full conversations.

“We were standing at our deck and they started yelling at us to ‘Shut up, or you’re going to get hurt,’ “ Moulton remembers.

From experience, Moulton knew that calling the police would only result in the campers being pushed a few feet away, so he took matters into his own hands. For two weeks he slept on his deck with his dog and a flashlight by his side.

“Three different times that first night I caught people coming up the hill to the house and I just shined a flashlight on them and told them to get off the property,” Moulton said. “So after a few nights of that they got tired of me and started threatening to kill us.”

Then came the last straw.

Moulton’s neighbor, Jay Henkleman, was reported missing last Sept. 14. Three days later he was found dead in Johnson Creek near Southwest Battaglia Avenue and Southwest 14th Drive. The Multnomah County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Henkelman’s death was accidental, caused by asphyxiation by drowning in the creek.

While Moulton is not making a connection between Henkleman’s death and the campers, he decided to turn to his neighborhood association for help.

Many residents along the trail have had similar run-ins.

Stan, who declined to give his last name, has lived on Southwest Eighth Drive since 1978. He referred to the current situation with the campers as “crap.”

Over the years he’s upgraded his property with fences, cameras and motion-sensor lights to keep safe. One morning he noticed the light sensor on his shed was triggered around 5 a.m. and went out to investigate. He opened the shed door to a man inside.

“I put a gun in his face,” Stan said. “He weaseled out and jumped the fence.”

“There’s only so much the police can do,” Stan said, of his hands-on dealing with trespassers.

Jack Ardner, president of the Southwest Neighborhood Association, said this population of homeless people at the root of the issue are not people down on their luck.

“These people desire to camp in the woods,” Ardner said. “Some have been there two to three years. They move when the police post their signs, but they just move nearby and start another camp, so it’s a continuing and ongoing problem.”

Terry Schumway, chairwoman of the association’s safety committee, called it a “cat and mouse game.”

City action

The warm weather this week brought dozens of people to the Springwater Trail to walk, bicycle, jog, skateboard, or just enjoy the rare late winter sunshine. City crews were also on the trail installing a fence at a cost of $12,000.

“There’s no defined end date,” said Joe Walsh, senior manager of the city’s neighborhood prosperity and youth engagement department. “Our natural resources staff will need to continually assess the area.”

People on the trail this week were surprised that the wooded area was being fenced.

Gina Michaels said she walks the trail daily and initially felt unsafe with the homeless, but then started to recognize and greet them.

“Once you start saying, ‘Hi’ and ‘Good morning’, they are very friendly,” Michaels said, then adding that she considers the city’s actions as “not nice” because there is nowhere else for the campers to go.

Andre Stephens, who rides a bicycle on the trail, said he often sees trash on the ground, but has never felt unsafe. But of the city’s action, he said, “If that’s what it takes to preserve (the land), I understand.”

Something needed to happen, said Danielle Miles, a volunteer coordinator for the Johnson Creek Watershed Council. The creek is unusable for swimming because of high levels of E. coli from either human or animal waste, Miles said.

“It’s really a larger social issue,” Miles said. “We have a crisis right now of people experiencing homelessness, and people are being forced into areas in really large numbers. And so it’s a problem from an urban ecology point of view, but a problem we want to respond to with sensitivity.”

During a City Council meeting Feb. 23, councilors asked city staff what would prevent people from camping on either side of the fenced-off area.

City Attorney David Ris explained that the city cannot prosecute people for camping outdoors because there is nowhere else for them to go in Gresham. Under state law, citing campers is seen as cruel and unusual punishment because of the lack of shelters in the city.

“The reality is that we can’t solve homelessness,” said Councilor Karylinn Echols. “If we knew how to solve homelessness, we would have the political will to solve it, but I don’t think anyone has figured that out.”