If it were anywhere else, the tent pavilion would look completely appropriate as one of the hiker/biker campsites found in Oregon state parks.
But this camp is one of many found along Nye Beach and elsewhere around Newport, occupied by the homeless. They come from many different backgrounds, and their stories are as individual as the men and women themselves.
Very few of them want to be there.
The rise in homeless camps has alarmed some residents in the area, including Teresa Amen, who vacations in Newport with her husband.
Amen said the problem is that the police force doesn’t act strongly enough to stop the vagrancy. She worries that the current laws enable the camps and aren’t strict enough.
Amen also said the camps have set a precedence in the community and steps aren’t being taken to stop these camps from growing. “There’s an attitude of ‘it’s always happened,’ but we’ve seen an increase in the last two years,” she explained. “There should be more parameters set up so the police can force the camp to vacate.”
Amen voices a number of concerns regarding problems inherent to the camps: trash and waste, fire hazards, deforestation, drugs and public safety.
“There are cars that come and go, they come at odd hours,” she said. “What a great hideout for someone that’s dealing drugs or a drug abuser.”
Along with the increased activity comes an increase in waste, trash and other human impacts. Some camp residents are trying to change that stereotype and have been working to turn their lives around and live unobtrusively and cleanly.
Among his neighbors, Jim still works when he can find it. Once the owner of a business in New- port, he fell out of work when the economy soured. Now he works when his pancreatitis allows him to. “I’m still in the phone book,” he said, taking a sip of his Burger King coffee, “but to put things back together is still hard.”
“Grampy” worked 16 years in oil fields, has fought fires in the back country for six years, and has crabbed for five years. His emphysema, COPD, and back pain make it almost impossible for him to find work. This doesn’t stop him from trying to live as inconspicuously as possible with his fellow homeless.
Grampy lives with three others in the camp and works to keep it clean and to keep the impact low. To reduce the trash and waste, they haul trash to the dumpsters of businesses that have allowed them to use them. “If we could just get a dumpster down here to clean this trash away, we would,” he said.
His experience in fighting fires led him to clear brush away 10 feet from the fire pit. While the deforestation worries Amen, the residents say they have only cleared a section of land out for a view of the ocean, not as wood to burn.
Nonetheless, the fires are one of the main concerns of Newport Police Sergeant Tom Simpson, who said the department is stuck be- tween enforcing the law and act- ing compassionately.
“There are no laws being broken,” he said, referring to any criminal violations. Simpson understands the need to move transients along, but he also feels the need to be humane in his application of the laws. “These people have got no place to go in the first place.”
As Simpson explains, the NPD respond to incident and disturbance calls, which lead to investigations. If a transient is found with a criminal record, he is arrested.
Because the camp is so commonplace, Simpson has become more concerned about the degradation of the environment through trash and deforestation. Such damage will not only weaken the bluff above the beach, but also become an increased fire hazard.
“My biggest fear is what would happen if a fire got out of control down there,” he said.
Dustin Kittel, community service officer for the Newport Police Department, echoes Simpson’s claims and agrees with the need to make the camps less of a public nuisance, while also treating the homeless humanely.
Kittel only acts if they encroach on private property or beach access. “If they’re not bothering anybody, I just try to make it safe,” he said. If the camps are an issue, he alerts them that it is against municipal codes and gives them three days to vacate.
“I wouldn’t want to break this camp up,” Kittel said, referring to Grampy’s camp, “because they’re keeping the area clean.”
Kittel believes that some of the camp residents simply want to be homeless, such as a woman he knows who is “severely disabled, but she doesn’t want to live in a house. That’s her lifestyle, and I can’t fault her for that.”
He also makes the distinction that some homeless people try harder than others to find work. “There’s a fine line between someone who’s out there filling people’s pockets with applications,” he said, “and those that are down there taking a handout or a leg up.”
The issues are present, and homelessness will never be isolated to one area. Barbara Dougherty, with the Lincoln Commission on Children and Families, has suggestions to reducing the damage and impact. Dougherty said the actual percentage of people that are a risk to the public is very small and levels at around one to two percent.
Dougherty encourages the public to get involved in helping improve the homeless communities through both public action and understanding. Learning their stories can assuage the public fears, and simply providing a temporary latrine or garbage disposal will allow the campers to help clean up their sites.
“We need people to come together in a community meeting to say what we can do, not complain,” Dougherty said.
Despite the concerns raised by Amen and some of her neighbors, not all of the block’s residents are worried about the camp’s presence.
“For myself, there’s never any problems,” said Roberta Pope, who has lived in the area for 15 years. She only sees them when they leave in the mornings or return at night.
“They’re always friendly, and they smile,” she said.
Ginger Hodge, who rents a house with her husband near the trail, feels the community can help. “I think we all ought to help each other, that’s what we’re here todo. To not do that is to miss what it means to be human.”
This story originally published in The Newport News-Times.
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