The Oregon Department of Transportation has installed fencing beneath two overpasses in The Dalles to prevent transients from camping under them.
“We don’t like doing it; it’s not a situation we like to be in,” said ODOT spokesman Peter Murphy. But the camping creates a situation “that simply has to be taken care of.”
The fencing, made of metal bars, is beneath the two bridges on Interstate 84 that cross West Second Street and the railroad tracks, Murphy said.
“They’re sparse,” he said of the fencing, “which is part of the intent. We’re not trying to make it attractive, we’re trying to seal it off.”
Risks to the bridge structure from camping include undermining it if too much soil is removed, and fires lit in the camp area that could damage the concrete of the bridge, an ODOT official said last year when The Dalles Police Department cleared out camps under the bridges.
“Making sure our bridges are safe is part of the deal. We felt this was the best option,” Murphy said.
ODOT maintenance crews have had to go in and clean up needles and human waste, he said. “We’re not rousting people; our objective is to have clean, nice, stable, safe roads and highways.”
Previously, the Second Street overpass was only marked with a “No Camping” sign. A steep bank of dirt rises up to the bottom of the overpass on either side of Second Street, and a narrow opening at the top leads to a hollowed out area that has been used for camping.
Under the process to remove campers who are trespassing and staying under the bridge, police or ODOT must first post a notice 10 days before clearing out the area. Once they clear out the area, they have to keep personal belongings for 30 days in case someone wants to claim them.
The state did not use chain link fence to seal off the area “because people can cut through that,” Murphy said.
The fences, made of steel tubing and iron, are buried in the dirt to a depth ODOT did not want to specify, Murphy said. Labor and materials for the work was $22,000.
The Dalles Police Officer Chris Simonds is working as the department’s Neighborhood Enforcement Action Team (NEAT) officer.
The job started with a focus on annoyance crimes and livability issues.
It has since expanded to include helping people get from a life path that results in negative police contacts to one that reduces such contacts or allows for more positive ones.
Since he’s been working as the NEAT officer, with its focus on the homeless, Simonds has been checking under the bridges for campsites.
“In 2017 it got so bad they had large propane heaters” under the bridges, Simonds said. “Stuff was starting to fall down the hillside from that camp onto Second Street, so that was a really bad area.”
With the fencing now in place, Simonds said those were locations “that I no longer have to check on a daily basis, which allows me to check other areas that are problem spots, and not to mention allows me more time to be proactive.”