Homeless camp dismantled in Hazel Dell

Clark County, railroad officials say site posed a safety issue to inhabitants

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Workers from the Larch Corrections Center lumbered out of the underbrush Wednesday near Northeast Highway 99, dragging tarps overflowing with debris.

Tromping down muddy stairs, away from the makeshift shantytown just a stone's throw from Interstate 5, the workers lugged the garbage to the railroad bridge above Highway 99 — the one emblazoned with the words "Hazel Dell" — and dropped items into a dump truck below. All the while, some workers grumbled about how the sheriff's office was displacing homeless people.

But, from Clark County's perspective, the homeless camp near the county-owned railroad tracks had become a huge dump. And while it was well hidden, numerous complaints made authorities feel they had to act. They said they try to clear homeless camps promptly by giving the residents notice they'll be rousted before eventually swooping in and doing so.

Wednesday's efforts were among the largest in recent memory, officials said, in terms of debris collected. Multiple trucks were called in to whisk material to the dump.

"It's happened before, where (transients) have gotten under the rail bridge," said Will Cahill, a railroad consultant working for the county who was at the camp Wednesday. "Tent city here was one of the bigger ones."

Before it was partially cleared — it will likely take more than just one day to collect everything — the camp was overrun by dozens of tarps, mounds of clothes dumped into bushes, piles of CDs left atop blackberry bushes and various sundries, including a backpack stuffed with unused hypodermic needles. A partially consumed bottle of prescription cough syrup rested beneath the branches of a burnt tree. Six people were told to move from the camp, but more could have lived there.

Cahill said the camp had gotten out of control. Because it was so close to a rail line, it also posed liability problems for the county.

"Even though trains run through here slow, they can't stop on a dime," he said. "So you get one person who lies down and falls asleep on the tracks — to be polite about it — then we have an incident, and we don't want that."

Jeff Swanson, the county's railroad coordinator, said he began receiving complaints about the camp in December.

He echoed Cahill's concerns, saying clearing the camp was a matter of safety.

"There are federal regulations when you enter a railroad right of way," he said. "If you're in the right of way, you need to go through safety training."

Homeless camps have posed problems for the county, particularly in Hazel Dell, said sheriff's office Sgt. Shane Gardner. Ever since 13-year-old Alycia Nipp was stabbed to death in 2009 by a transient sex offender who was squatting in an abandoned house, attitudes toward homeless people have shifted, he said. Before the incident, it seemed as if more people had a live-and-let-live outlook when it came to the camps. But now, people want the camps gone, and they're filing complaints.

Or they're taking it upon themselves to clear them out. In February, the Sifton Neighborhood Association cleared a small homeless camp, also located in Hazel Dell.

The sheriff's office tries to be as responsive as it can to complaints about the camps, Gardner said. In doing so, deputies try to provide the displaced with as much information as they can about the services available in the county.

There were roughly 693 people who were homeless in Clark County in 2013, when the Council for the Homeless conducted its one-day homeless count. Andy Silver, the council's executive director, said anecdotally he's heard more reports of people sleeping outside.

As for Wednesday's homeless camp operation, Silver said the sheriff's office hadn't coordinated with his organization or other social services in the county.

Gardner said that wasn't a policy of the sheriff's office. He added that deputies tend to provide information about shelters and other resources to homeless people if they're receptive to the information. But often, he said, they're not.

Nonetheless, Silver said, by not educating homeless people about what their options are, camps will continue to take shape, but in different areas.

"When they take down an encampment, (homeless people) stay around and move to a different camp," Silver said. "They don't have anywhere else to go. They will find another place to hopefully stay out of sight."