POLK COUNTY — Sherri Marcott Stlouis tried to stay out of sight.
She set up a two-person tent for herself and her son at the Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge outside of Dallas on Oct. 27 and covered it with a black plastic tarp to keep themselves dry and — with any luck — camouflage themselves from visitors who might complain.
“The reason I was there is because it’s away from people, there’s a bathroom, and it wasn’t too far from town,” Stlouis said. “We were there three days when a sheriff’s deputy made us leave. It’s against the law, I was told.”
Canada dusky geese, mallards, red-tailed hawks and bald eagles may find refuge on Baskett Slough’s 2,492 acres, but there is almost no refuge for homeless human beings in Polk County — with one exception.
Salem city officials, overwhelmed by homelessness in their community, allow hundreds of people to camp at Wallace Marine Park in West Salem.
Jimmy Jones, the executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency in Salem, estimated approximately 250 people camp at the park. There are approximately 325 homeless people in West Salem all together, he said.
The number of homeless people in and around Dallas, Monmouth and Independence is harder to pinpoint.
“That’s been the story for years in smaller communities,” Jones said. “They stay well-hidden most of the time.”
And unlike Salem, the other cities in Polk County forbid camping in parks and on other public properties.
“Police will shuffle them along,” Jones said.
Britneigh Hammill, the police community liaison for the Dallas Police Department, said there is no specific place in Dallas where people regularly camp.
“Since we have a relatively lower number of persons living on the street as compared to larger cities, you seldom see large gatherings,” Hammill said. “Our officers follow the current case law from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has essentially invalidated ordinances prohibiting camping on public property.”
However, she added, if people camp in the city park after it closes at dusk, police can tell them to leave due to existing laws regulating camp hours.
“If a person is camping on private property, officers will respond if property owners cannot get them to leave and wish to report a trespass situation,” she said.
Sgt. Mark Robertson of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office said deputies sporadically respond to complaints of illegal camping on public and private property.
“Typically, violators get trespassed,” Robertson said, meaning they are forbidden to return to the property.
“It usually doesn’t result in criminal charges,” he added. “Obviously, if they choose to come back, they could be criminally charged.”
Complaints about illegal camping are fairly frequent, he said.
“Unfortunately, there’s a large population of homeless people, especially in the Salem area,” Robertson said.
Shiana Weaver, the program manager in Dallas for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said so many people packed into Wallace Marine Park creates a volatile situation.
“It can be a little dangerous down there,” Weaver said.
Jill, who asked that her last name not be printed, said she never thought she would find herself in such danger.
“I want people to understand that what they think is probably not accurate about people out here,” she said. “Most people do not realize they are only one step away from not having a place to be sheltered.”
She and her husband of 29 years became homeless after he became ill, and they lost everything to medical expenses. Now, she said, his illness is terminal.
“What usually brings most people out here is illness or trauma,” Jill said. “I didn’t think I’d ever be out here. I owned my own home and rental property. I am now trying to put the pieces back together again. We have no support, family or otherwise.”
Wind and rain combine to turn the park into a giant bog.
“Due to the rainstorm the other night, most of us have wet blankets and other possessions with no way to get them dry,” Jill said. “The wind was really bad. My camp is always clean. The storm just annihilated us.”
Jean Herndon spends a lot of time at Wallace Marine Park, helping people any way she can. Once homeless herself, Herndon said, she understands what they must endure just to survive one day to the next.
“So many people out here are so mentally ill,” she said. “Even the churches and families can no longer protect them. I look at how high the flood wall is for houses across the river, and I think the one thing everyone out here needs is a life jacket.”
The Willamette River rises fast, she added, perhaps too fast for the campers to respond to a flash flood.
“They are hoping for a charging station, so someone with a phone can alert them, but the city pulled the plug on the only electricity out here.”
She also worries about people like her friend Melinda.
“That poor woman has been laying on the sidewalk in front of the Edgewater Apartments for weeks now,” she said. “She’s starting to get sick. She’s burned all her bridges. She will die there probably. Her daughter came down and cried. She couldn’t get any help for her mother, and she tried a lot of things. A judge wouldn’t even let her become her mother’s payee.”
Her friend Michael’s feet also concern Hendron.
“His feet are all wrinkled up from being wet,” she said. “They don’t look good. I gave him some cedar oil for his feet. People here are cold, wet and often hungry. There are two old women dying on the streets because they’re too crazy to get help, and no one will shelter them.”
Family Promise of the Mid-Willamette Valley reportedly operates a shelter in West Salem. However, there’s no answer at the organization. The phone system won’t even accept voicemail messages.
Even the Union Gospel Mission, where many people once found shelter, is no longer an option at the moment.
“The Union Gospel Mission had to shut down due to COVID cases, so there’s no shelter there,” Herndon said. “All the guys who tested positive are required to quarantine there. The ones exposed were asked to stay.”
Jim Tate said he has no option other than camping at the park. It’s ironic in a sense. He worked for 15 years for Thousand Trails, a string of 80 RV parks scattered across the country. He was an assistant manager for one of the parks.
“After 15 years, I didn’t really have a Plan B because I thought I was going to be retiring with that company,” Tate said.
Then, out of the blue, he was fired.
“I lost my job for no reason other than that I was making too much money,” he said.
Medical bills for his disabled wife piled up. She ended up in an assisted-living center, and he ended up in the park. When their 33-year marriage eventually ended, he started taking meth at the age of 50.
“I just didn’t handle it really well,” he said. “Now I’m out here. This is where I live.”
Stlouis, 53, prefers to stay away from the park.
“I often live in my vehicle with my dog,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable among strangers and keep to myself. I camp in the mountains, mostly.”
Her son, now in his early 30s, was diagnosed with a mental illness a year and a half ago.
“He doesn’t like being out of the city and can do little for himself,” she said. “He prefers to stay on the streets in Salem. He has places he goes and is able to care for himself to a degree. He walks a lot to place. When he gets tired, he will stop and usually lay down. That’s where it gets scary. He’s been nearly hit numerous times by vehicles.”
Then there are the predators.
“Really messed-up people prey on the homeless who have disabilities because they are less likely to fight back,” Stlouis said. “They’re victimized on a daily basis with no end in sight.
“He’s been stabbed twice,” she added. “He had a metal pipe hit him in his face, causing his vision to diminish and more. He’s a target for bullies and gangs because he’s different. These people attack him and threaten to steal his sleeping bag, phone, coat and shoes.”
She feels helpless.
“If it isn’t someone stealing from him like another homeless person, it’s the city workers who take his camping gear and throw it away,” she said. “It’s happened countless times. His negative behaviors have increased because he has endured cruelty.”
Because there is virtually nowhere for homeless people to sleep in Polk County’s smaller communities, Stlouis said she and her son keep moving — hoping to grab a night’s sleep before being shooed away by authorities.
“I normally park at the church by the post office, but my son was with me, and I know I am not allowed to put up a tent,” she said. “It’s a city law, and it’s enforced. There is a parking lot in back of an attorney’s office. The landlord came and talked to me, and after learning our situation, allowed us to park my vehicle with the tent next to it — as out of sight as possible.”
Yet people still complained to the police.
“It was later in the day, with rain coming, when a Dallas police officer made me remove the tent,” Stlouis said.
She admitted she didn’t respond well.
“I completely lost my cool with the officer,” she said. “I am lucky he didn’t arrest me for what I said. I asked him how he slept at night or how he could look at himself in the mirror, knowing he put this disabled young man out in the cold with literally no regard for his well-being.”
Her son stowed his tent in the bushes.
“When he got back to where he put them, someone had taken his house.”
Some people try camping on Bureau of Land Management property up Gooseneck Road.
“That was the worst experience of my life,” Stlouis said. “It was like World War III with automatic weapons and explosions and gunfire around the clock. With the bullets ricocheting around us, I was in constant fear of my dog or me being shot. I tried walking out of there and didn’t get far before having to turn back because it was too far to make it to Dallas.”
She said she wants people to understand that “the homeless” are human beings with names, faces and stories. However, she added, it’s hard for anyone to understand what homelessness is like unless they’re experiencing it.
“I don’t know if there are words that could ever describe being homeless,” Stlouis said. “I never thought I would be one of those people, yet here I am. Misery and suffering have become commonplace.”
Jill at Wallace Marine Park said people keep looking for a solution to homelessness, but there’s isn’t one single solution.
“There are many different situations that will require many different solutions,” she said. “We need creative, fresh ways to address these problems. Dorm-style shelter is not going to work for everyone.”
The approaching winter only adds a new dimension to people’s suffering, Stlouis said.
“It’s miserable when you’re bedding gets wet because you can’t do a thing about it but get dry stuff,” she said. “It’s been a constant problem because you can’t put up a tent to keep you out of the weather because it’s a law.”
Being homeless is bad enough, Stlouis said. She wishes homeless people didn’t also have to endure the judgments and complaints of people who sleep in warm beds. Those who complain should remember it is harder to be homeless than it is to see a homeless person, she said.
“You shouldn’t look down on people unless you are helping them up,” Stlouis said. “I am homeless, but still human.”
Jim Tate said it’s important for homeless people like himself and Stlouis to share their stories.
“Everyone’s got one,” he said.