Marion Square Park encampment near campus 'swept', displacing residents
Before Thursday, March 3rd, Marion Square Park was the site of an encampment for approximately 120 people experiencing homelessness. The park is located just four blocks northwest of Willamette’s Salem campus. Signs were posted a week prior warning that the park would be under maintenance on Wednesday, March 2nd. This maintenance took the form of a complete encampment eviction, displacing all residents.
Most folks living on Salem’s streets are all too familiar with sweeps like this. Trevor Smith, Public Information Officer for The City of Salem, described the sweeps as a “standard cleanup.” He said, “Unfortunately many of these people have been forced to move from other parks in the past, so the routine is very similar.” Smith continuously framed the goal of the sweep to be simply to eliminate trash in order to make the park safe and usable to the public. The city regularly sweeps encampments multiple times a year. When the community is displaced from one encampment, they set up in another spot that will inevitably be swept as well. The cycle is endless.
Salem’s unhoused community spent Wednesday preparing for the sweep. Police cars were seen as early as 6 a.m. in the park, but the sweeps themselves didn’t start until the following day. On Wednesday morning, one woman known as Momma T, and her friends fervently discussed their anger over the situation in their tent, taking cover from the persistent Oregon rain. “I’m to the point where I don’t give a fuck about the city of Salem,” she exclaimed. “They just got $400 million donated to them. I can show you on my phone from [Statesman Journal where all that money is going]. They’re building pallet houses when they should be building affordable apartment buildings and homes, not pallet houses. I think the government’s totally crooked.” Momma T described herself as the encampment’s mother figure. Others regarded her as a highly respected unofficial leader. She came to Salem in 2006 and has been in and out of housing for over a decade. She explained the effort she put into trying to prevent a sweep by encouraging people to clean their trash and discouraging people from fighting or openly using drugs on the property as much as possible. These efforts weren’t enough to stop the sweep from taking place. Momma T’s disillusionment with the local government and the lack of sustainable solutions for individuals experiencing homelessness was shared among many living at the encampment and among volunteers, alike.
There were around 15 volunteers from Salem and beyond at Marion Square who were unaffiliated with any formal organization. In the weeks leading up to the sweep, local activist groups circulated requests online for community members to show up as non-confrontational observers. These calls to action drew much of the younger crowd who showed up to offer assistance at the sweeps. Willamette students, Celeste Ferguson (‘22) and Grace Crookham-Guy (‘22), both came down to volunteer after learning of the sweeps via Instagram accounts including @cherrycitycollective, @freefridgesalem and @manicdirteater. Addressing the very small WU student presence, Ferguson remarked, “Most people I know at Willamette don’t really know a lot about Salem because [they just] come to school and didn’t grow up here. And in any place that you go, you should get to know the unhoused community because it’s a big part of the city.”
Two volunteers from Stop the Sweep Corvallis spent Wednesday morning cooking and serving hot meals. They described themselves as “just a group of community members that care about our unhoused neighbors doing mutual aid and advocacy.” The various community members set out tables stocked with bottled water, snacks, hand warmers, hand sanitizer, masks, bungee cords and other donated supplies. On the day of the sweep, many of the same faces assisted individuals in sorting through, packing and moving their belongings.
Shortly after 8 a.m. Thursday morning, city employees, park staff, a massive team of hired contract workers and the Salem police department showed up at Marion Square Park to begin the sweep. The encampment eviction was not a simple endeavor. The city brought in big dumpsters and excavators to aid in discarding tents, possessions and trash. Police went from tent to tent to ensure that the sites had been abandoned before the contract workers came in and stuffed peoples’ belongings and garbage alike into trash bags to throw away. For the larger abandoned tent sites, the city employees used the excavators to break down and transport entire tents to dumpsters.
While those checking on sites and engaging with unhoused individuals are supposed to be educated on trauma-informed strategies, there was a lot of hostile shaking of tents and less than gentle delivery of orders. Multiple volunteers reported witnessing one worker scream, “Don’t fucking talk to us!” at an unhoused woman who was vocalizing her frustration over being “thrown around and treated poorly,” in the words of a witness/volunteer. There were few confrontational altercations, however, as most of the park’s residents realized their lack of power to stop the city’s plans.
There was a combination of established nonprofits and organizations as well as unaffiliated community members present on the scene offering assistance and resources to support the unhoused community through their forced relocation. Among the established groups were representatives from The ARCHES Project, the Recovery Outreach Community Center (ROCC) and Be Bold Street Ministries (BBSM).
The ARCHES Project is the housing and homeless service branch of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, and its day center is located directly across the street from Marion Square Park. The project aims to connect unhoused individuals with services to help build self-sufficiency and connect them with safe, stable housing. ARCHES volunteers handed out tarps, blankets, and tents in exchange for bags of collected trash on Wednesday and Thursday. Day center coordinator Robert Marshall discussed how they try to relieve as much trauma as they can but recognize this to only be a band-aid on a far larger problem. “I can’t tell somebody that’s being displaced today from Marion Square Park, ‘Hey, you can go here and you’re going to be safe. You’re not going to have to worry about being moved.’ And really, the only solution is better access to housing, better access to low-barrier shelters,” he explained.
Other organizations like Be Bold Street Ministries (BBSM) assist Salem’s unhoused population by helping people access support and resources in a way that’s more rooted in religion. For some people, receiving assistance with their spiritual, as well as physical, needs is transformative. Before he was BBSM’s Executive Director, Matthew Maceira lived unsheltered in Salem for over a decade. “The Lord got a hold of my heart and now I get to love and genuinely care for everyone no matter what their situation, circumstances or choices are. We want to take as much burden off our neighbors as possible because they’re our neighbors. Most of the folks that are out here, I know from my old life when I was on the streets,” said Maceira.
However, for others, the religious component that’s often incorporated into shelters and programs’ messaging is unnecessary and inappropriate for their personal needs. John “Rock Polisher” Gassaway, a Salem local who just moved into a pallet structure after spending nine years unhoused, said that he didn’t find the faith aspect to be helpful in his transition to shelter: “Actually it was more of the resources and the kindness. They teach us to be self-reliant and nudge us in the right direction,” he said. In addition to religious affiliation, an obstacle that prevents many folks from seeking help and finding placement within a shelter is the otherwise strict guidelines. Many Salem shelters such as Union Gospel Mission, commonly referred to as UGM, often impose curfews and restrictions on drug and alcohol use that deter people who are seeking shelter but are still battling substance use disorders. Making the transition to a disciplined, supervised lifestyle isn’t easy for many who have become accustomed to their lives on the streets.
The encampment sweep wrapped up around 3:30 p.m. on Thursday afternoon. The park was nearly unrecognizable. Where the community had gathered in solidarity with their struggling, unhoused neighbors, sharing meals and conversation only a few hours prior, it was abandoned and desolate. The people who used to call the park their place of residency have a difficult road ahead of them. Most of those displaced went to Wallace Marine Park, Cascade Gateway, under Center Street Bridge or spread out along the downtown corridor, where police are not allowing encampments but are permitting people to sleep on sidewalks away from businesses. This won’t be the last time most of them endure this brutal practice. In the words of 21-year-old “Shoes,” who has lived unhoused in Salem since he was 15, “We’re just going to go to the same spots. There is no just kicking us all out, we’re people.”