Fatal fire at Oregon City homeless camp highlights growing crisis in suburbs

Housing crisis in Clackamas County

OREGON CITY, Ore. -- Less than 50 feet from the steady stream of cars driving down Washington Street toward Oregon City’s George Abernethy Bridge, sits a blackened, burned patch of grass, still littered with a few articles of clothing, hand sanitizer bottles and other belongings.

Oregon City police said the fire, which started around 2 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8, was fatal.

The victim was a homeless woman, identified Tuesday by Oregon City police as 45-year-old Rachael Renee Edwards.

Multiple acquaintances said Thursday that Edwards lived in the camp with her boyfriend, who survived. They said he told them a candle left burning overnight started the fire. 

Police couldn’t confirm that theory.

“It's just detrimental,” said one man, who asked to be identified only as Robert. “It's like this black wave through the population.”

Wednesday afternoon, hours after the fire was out, Clackamas County officials declared a six-month state of emergency surrounding homelessness and the need for emergency shelter beds. 

Officials noted Thursday the declaration had been in the works for weeks and was in no way a response to the fire.

What it is in response to, said a spokesman for the county, is a spike in homelessness in several communities in Clackamas County.

Officer Mike Day’s current job as the Oregon City Police Department’s first ever “homeless liaison” is a repercussion of that spike.

“When I started here 10 years ago, there was a handful of people. We kind of knew who they were. Everybody in the police department knew who they were and that they were homeless,” he said. “The familiar faces have started to get increasingly less familiar over the years.”

Much of Officer Day’s job, he said, centers around responding to complaints of lower level criminal activity that often stem from chronic homelessness, like illegal camping, defecating in public and drug use.

He then works with social service agencies and nonprofits to, if possible, point campers toward services that might help them address long-running issues like mental health and addiction.

It’s an approach that, he pointed out Thursday, wasn’t needed in smaller communities like Oregon City until a few years ago.

“It’s growing here also,” he said, referring to homelessness. “So I think those effects of increased rent and things of that nature are stretching to the suburbs.”

The federally mandated Point in Time counts for Clackamas County show he’s right.

In 2013, officials counted 478 people in Clackamas County as “unsheltered”, which means they sleep outside or in spaces not designed for habitation, like doorways or cars.

In 2015, that figure remained relatively stagnant, at 484.

This year, it jumped to 746.
To put it in perspective, Multnomah County’s unsheltered population for 2017 came in at 1,668.

Still, Clackamas County’s escalating total is more than enough to strain emergency housing resources in communities like Oregon City.

That includes a long-running day shelter run by “The Father’s Heart Street Ministry”, which is currently working with the county to set up an emergency warming shelter, that could run overnight.

“We serve on average 100 to 120 each day that we’re open,” said executive director Robin Schmidt. “And when I first came here, a high number day was like sixty, and it’s staying more consistent. Each time we think ‘Well, it’s going to start dwindling down.’ It’s not.”

Schmidt noted she and her colleagues are glad to hear about the declaration, headed into the frigid, wet winter months.

According to a news release, Clackamas County’s emergency status allows them to:

  • Commit to mutual aid agreements;
  • Suspend standard competitive bidding procedures to obtain necessary goods, services and/or equipment;
  • Redirect funds for emergency use;
  • Order such other measures as are found to be immediately necessary for the protection of life and/or property;
  • Authorize county staff to explore the acquisition of sites suitable for installation of temporary housing units for the homeless population, and to prepare or equip such sites, and
  • Waive county code regulations, rules and fees to the extent necessary and possible to respond to the housing emergency.

Officials wrote they’ll be looking to partner with shelters they’ve worked with in the past, while exploring new options.

“We will also be exploring options for a contingency warming shelter at the county fairgrounds, in empty buildings in the community and through motel vouchers,” said County Health and Human Services Director Richard Swift.

According to the release, officials hope to provide warming shelters for approximately 1,000 people.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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