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Complaints, concerns prompt camping closure at McCormick Park

Campers routinely break park and campground rules, use the park facilities inappropriately


SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - Signs announcing that camping in McCormick Park is now closed to camping were posted in the park Thursday, June 16. It's unclear when, or if, camping will be reopened in the park in the future.Camping at St. Helens’ McCormick Park is now indefinitely prohibited after a request from staff was brought before the City Council last week.

On Wednesday, June 15, Public Works Department Operations Director Neal Sheppeard requested and received approval from council to shut down camping in the park after the department received numerous complaints about an increase of homeless people living in the campsites as the weather has improved.

The day after the meeting, signs were put up in the park indicating that camping in the park has been closed for the season. Normally, camping is seasonally permitted in designated campsites in the park for three consecutive nights starting in May and ending in October.

Sheppeard explained that the park has not been used for the kind of camping it was initially intended for, however. Campers believed to be homeless would repeatedly obtain three-day camping permits from the city’s Parks Department, pay for the first night, and then switch campsites three days later and obtain another permit.

It was a problem late last summer as well, Sheppeard said. Because the activity occurred toward the end of the permitted camping season, however, he decided not to pursue closing the campgrounds at that time.

St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss said his department has also received complaints of vagrancy, domestic violence, thefts, suspicious vehicles and suspicious persons in the park and has responded to 13 complaints at that location so far in June. In June 2015, officers received only five calls.

“We’ve not had that many calls in one month in the past three years,” Moss said Monday while looking at call log records.

Sheppeard also said people were leaving trash and needles in the park, ignoring no smoking and no drinking rules, and using the park’s bathroom facilities inappropriately by engaging in sexual activities or washing clothes in the showers. Sheppeard said he received complaints almost daily for the past two weeks about people feeling unsafe in the park.

“Basically, they’re just wrecking the park atmosphere,” Sheppeard said. “People wouldn’t use the rest of the park because of it.”

Lindsay Erickson, a St. Helens resident with five children, said she visits the park twice a week with her family and generally feels safe, although she has noticed an increase in garbage in the area. Two months ago, she said, a man who was homeless tried to talk to her children, but she’s never had any major conflicts with anyone.

Erickson said she could understand how closing camping makes sense if the campground is not being used for what is was intended for, but it won’t do anything to help the homeless problem the county is currently experiencing, she said. Others like Tyler Epperly, a St. Helens man who visited the park with his sister Monday, said the same thing.

“If you think about it ... if you close [camping], they’re just gonna go somewhere else,” Epperly said. “[But] there’s not much you can do.”

Closing the park to camping means people residing there will have to relocate, a concern recognized by many. During the City Council work session last week, Councilor Susan Conn raised the question of where those people would go and whether or not closing the park was making the problem worse, without providing some sort of alternative resource.

Other councilors echoed concerns about a seemingly growing homeless population in St. Helens, but none offered any suggestions regarding Conn’s statements.

Discussions about how the free showers in McCormick Park have been abused and how Community Action Team can help those who truly want help emerged, but the council’s role in addressing those concerns remains unclear.

Sheppeard acknowledged that closing camping in McCormick will push the roughly 10 to 12 people who are homeless that had been camping in the park to other areas of the city, but said he doesn’t have an answer to the homelessness problem.

“I don’t know the answer to that,” Sheppearad said. “I wish I did.”

The goal was to help restore a safe atmosphere to the park, he explained.

“Hopefully, it’ll make people feel safe down here who are using it legitimately,” he added.