Highway health hazards
After giving a required 10-day notice to transients camped out beneath the exit 27 bridge, ODOT, Oregon State Police and Jackson County Corrections cleanup crews converged Thursday on the area between the Bear Creek Greenway and Interstate 5 to clean up trash, human waste, needles, shopping carts and a lot more.
First, however, they had to evict some of the campers who had created much of the mess.
Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Gary Leaming said cleaning up homeless camps from 2013 to 2017 have cost his agency about $3.1 million. Annual costs have skyrocketed from $261,000 in 2013 to $943,000 in 2017.
A 27-yard Dumpster kept at the ODOT maintenance yard on Hamrick Road was emptied once a month in 2013, and now it gets dumped once or twice per week at certain times of year.
Additional costs come from removing hazardous materials, replacing damaged fencing and paying for community service crews to clean hard-to-reach areas by hand.
Leaming said ODOT partners with myriad agencies in cleanup efforts because of homelessness issues and drugs.
On Thursday, a pair of dogs that were tied to the bridge girders barked while state police made contact with transients, arresting at least one on an outstanding warrant.
Crews discovered an extensive setup of wood pallets and cardboard sleeping quarters propped up inside the bridge’s concrete beams. Some of the under-girders had been painted sky blue, and a makeshift bathroom was evidenced by a pile of human feces and two rolls of toilet paper.
The area beneath the bridge was littered with suitcases, used needles and food wrappers. A half-dozen campers had failed to heed the notice to vacate, including one person on parole for weapons-related charges, a heroin addict who was offered a sharps box to dispose of needles, and a meth-addicted juvenile runaway.
Additional agencies who played a role in Thursday’s cleanup included Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife — to assess damage to the riparian area due to feces and drug paraphernalia — and Department of Human Services caseworkers who dealt with the teen.
Leaming said the task of cleaning trash and debris from state rights of way has grown more complex.
“It’s an unusual position for this agency, but if you look around, there are shopping carts everywhere, the post office is closing at night, we’ve got exclusion zones. We’re a transportation agency. We’re just trying to clean up the public right of way and be good stewards,” he said.
“We’re not law enforcement, and we’re not a social service agency.”
Steve Stone, ODOT maintenance manager for Medford and Central Point, said cleanup efforts bring safety concerns for crews. Last year, one of the homeless campers confronted cleanup crews and accompanying law enforcement with a gun along a makeshift path once part of the old northbound I-5 offramp.
“We give them a long time to get their stuff cleaned up,” Stone said.
“Then they have to be given 10 days to clear out, and it has to be posted. Do they clean up? Not always,” Stone said, gesturing to an extensive campsite.
“We told this guy we were coming back and to get it cleaned up. There’s still trash, so we have to go through here and separate everything that looks like a personal item, and we have to hang on to it for 30 days.”
Jeff Proulx, a patrol sergeant for Oregon State Police, said the multi-agency approach to public right-of-way cleanup is the only solution to the regional issue.
“It’s just not as simple as going in and moving all the stuff. There are things in place, and things have happened in the past, because of case law, that requires us and especially ODOT to be careful about how they do everything,” Proulx said.
“The homeless situation is unfortunate, and one that I don’t have the answer to, but we do have to keep the right of way safe.”
Proulx added, “We had a cleanup about a year ago that was such a bio-hazard that we had to have a special unit come in and clean up needles and feces. That was a $10,000 bill for just one day. There’s no doubt it’s costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands annually.”
Leaming said he sympathized with homeless people but said laws are in place to ensure public safety and preserve taxpayer dollars. Campfires, he noted, compromise bridge components, while homeless camps create public safety and environmental hazards. By Thursday afternoon, crews had cleaned just one third of the area, filling three 10-yard trucks and loading four dozen shopping carts onto a trailer.
“We don’t have all the answers but, at the same time, we need to continue to work with other agencies to get the right resources to the right people. We’re a transportation agency and we have to take care of our facilities, but this problem is much larger than one agency and this one location,” Leaming said.
“When we go in, we need to have law enforcement with us. I see down the road where there will be better partnerships between the state, county and cities, as well. Without a solution, this is, sadly, kind of the new normal for our maintenance crews.”
Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.