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'This is heart-wrenching': Salem homeless camps washed away by flooding

The heavy rains have left at least a couple dozen people displaced at two parks in Salem.

SALEM, Ore. — Hundreds of homeless people live in two parks in Salem at camps designated by the city. Heavy rain caused flooding, washing out many tents. Now, many say they're left with nothing.

“This is heart wrenching,” Jaime Johnson said. “I see some of my stuff still standing, but it’s waterlogged from the bottom all the way up to the top.”

Heavy rains over the weekend washed away tents and everything inside them at Cascades Gateway Park and Wallace Marine Park in Salem.  

Johnson has been living at Cascades Gateway Park since June.

“This is the first time I’ve been homeless like this and it’s really been an emotional drain for me. It’s heartbreaking to see how there’s no rescue. The only stuff that we have is priceless to us and we’re losing all of that with no help,” she said.

For her and many others in the parks, everything they had has either washed out or under water.

RELATED: Flooding, landslides from heavy rains close roads around region

“My boyfriend and I went down to our camp and then got woke up by screaming, saying, ‘We need help, we need help. Get out of your tent. You guys got to get up. You guys are underwater, go,’” said another woman living at Cascades Gateway Park, Kellyn Reynolds.

A sewage overflow contaminating the Willamette River means anything that’s salvaged from the water will likely be contaminated.

“I lost everything," said Stacey, who also lives at the park. "All my clothes all my sentimental value stuff, everything got washed in the flood. So, it’s really difficult to deal with it, but I’m hanging in there.” 

Back in March, the city of Salem opened up undeveloped areas of both Cascades Gateway Park and Wallace Marine Park for unsheltered folks to be able to safely space out in the pandemic.

Right now, the number of people experiencing homelessness exceeds shelter capacity by hundreds, according to City of Salem Human Rights and Federal Compliance Manager Gretchen Bennett.

“I don’t want to miss the opportunity to recognize, of course, that it’s difficult for a park, an undeveloped part of a park, to be a place fit for human habitation in general,” Bennett said. “It really underscores the need and the crisis in our community for more places for people to be able to be.”

The city sees area flooding nearly every year, according to the city’s emergency preparedness manager Gregory Walsh.

He said his team was watching the forecast last week and by Friday they started working with homeless advocate partners to get the word out about the potential for significant flooding.

“That’s immediately a vulnerable group that we try to look and to try to make sure that we get in there and give them dedicated services to take care of them the best way they can,” Walsh said.  

However, some of the people who woke up to flooded tents in Cascades Gateway Park say they did not get advanced warning.  

“We didn’t have any fair warning that it was going to flood, and we should have had a lot more time than what we did,” Reynolds said. “We got woken up, saying, ‘Get out of your camp, get out of your camp’ because we had water that was going up the bottom of our tent.”

Those willing to speak with KGW at the park told us that when police arrived, they didn’t get the help they needed.

“The fact that we lost everything and the first responders aren’t willing to help us, when we need help they’d rather harass us and give us tickets than help us, when that’s what their job is to do,” Reynolds said.

“I just hate that, and my immediate response is that I’d love to talk to anyone who is feeling that way,” Bennett said. “We would expect our police and any city employee to treat everybody with complete respect. So, I would absolutely want to talk to people and see if I can remedy that situation. That’s not OK.”

Bennett said there are drier areas in the parks at higher elevations further away from the river. They’ve encouraged people to move their tents to those areas.

RELATED: More homeless people dying on Multnomah County's streets

DJ Vincent is a pastor and director of one of the nonprofit groups the city partners with, Church at the Park.

He said on Sunday they gave out 50 sleeping bags, tents, and tarps to people who were displaced by the flooding. However, he knows the need is greater than the resources and this heartbreaking flooding only illustrates how dire the need is in Salem.

“It was also an acknowledgement that we’re behind when it comes to affordable housing, when it comes to the number of shelter beds,” Vincent said. "And then we’re actively working, Gretchen and I will be working later today on how can we open up some of these managed camps, where we know they’re going to be out of a flood area, where we know they’re going to be dry, and we can provide sanitation services.”

For the folks who’ve lost everything, they say they need more, immediate help.

“It was cold, freezing, just ridiculous. We need to get more help. I’m ashamed of how the city of Salem has been acting with the whole situation, period,” Jonson said.

KGW reached out to the Salem Police Department for comment, but hadn’t hear back by the time the story aired.

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