Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero and Ontario City Councilor Freddy Rodriguez discuss homelessness on Monday, Oct. 14, along the Snake River. (Joe Siess/The Enterprise)
UPDATE: This has been updated to include a Malheur Enterprise video from the scene.
ONTARIO – City and state crews working with heavy machinery cleaned out the remnants of homeless camps along the Snake River north of Ontario on Monday, sending campers scrambling for new places to live.
The effort was announced last week and homeless campers were given several days’ notice to gather their belongings and leave.
The cleanup was prompted by a break-in at one of the wells that pertains to the city’s water treatment plant, causing concern that water could be contaminated.
“That is kind of scary to think that someone can get in and compromise the whole city’s water system,” said Adam Brown, Ontario city manager.
Crews from the Ontario Public Works Department and Oregon Department of Transportation cut through brush and debris on public property along the river starting at 8 a.m. Monday.
According to Cliff Leeper, city public works director, such a cleanup hadn’t been done in years.
“There is lots of vegetation and things that need to be taken care of down in the area north of the water treatment plant,” Leeper said.
In the days leading up to the cleanup, Brown went down to warn the homeless community about the cleanup. He told them how to safeguard their belongings and where to get community help.
Brown said the city’s effort was triggered in part by the presence of homemade toilets that have been installed by homeless individuals next to the river that could potentially leak, contaminating the water.
Freddy Rodriguez, an Ontario city councilor who also provided personal outreach to homeless people, said it was more accurate to call what happened along the river a “displacement.”
“The appearance is that we are strong-arming these people,” Rodriguez said. “If we keep pushing them around from spot to spot, that’s not going to solve the problem.”
Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero, who was also at the cleanup Monday, agreed with Rodriguez that homeless people were being displaced.
“People have created displacement and we are recipients of it,” Romero said of the city’s homelessness problem. “We didn’t create displacement. Displacement found us.”
Rodriguez and Romero agreed that something more must be done to mitigate the situation of homelessness in Ontario. They disagreed on what action to take.
As Rodriguez and Romero debated, crews in bright yellow vests and hardhats operating bulldozers cleared out abandoned encampments and fallen tree limbs.
Paul Woodworth, the district manager for the Oregon Department of Transportation, said that it wasn’t evident how long the operation would take.
Brown estimated that there are as many as 60 homeless people living in the woods along the river on either side of the Northwest 16th Street bridge, and that after the cleanup there is nothing stopping them from returning to the same spot.
Romero, however, said he has plans to make sure the area stays empty after the cleanup.
“My cops are going to be down here regularly, trespassing people,” Romero said.
City officials passed out a tip sheet listing services available to those being evicted from the camps.
The Ontario Police Department, for instance, could safely store property and provide for temporary housing. The Malheur County Health Department offers health care, family planning and counseling services and the New Hope Day Shelter provides food, faith, education, hygiene and community services.
“The folks down there have lots of needs,” Brown added. “And there’s not a single answer right now to address it.”
News tip? Contact reporter Joe Siess: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-473-3377.
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