A picture of the sign in front of Marion Square Park. It's a faded, dirty beige with moss growing on one side. The letters are in blue. At the base, starting to overrun the sign, is a bush. Directly behind the sign is a small tree. In the background, about a dozen tents of various colors stand in the park along with some bicycles - some upside down, some not.Houselessness

City of Salem Sweeps Camp at Marion Square Park, Displaces Disabled Residents

On Mar. 2, houseless residents at Marion Square Park in Salem woke up to a rainy, wet morning and began to pack their belongings prior to a scheduled 8 a.m. sweep.

Double Sided Media was there to observe and spoke with several residents over the course of a couple of hours until it was all but certain that the sweep wouldn’t happen until at least the next day.  

Brent, one of the residents who lives across the street next to The ARCHES Project building, said that even if the city goes through with the sweep, he’ll move his stuff, and then come right back as soon as he can. Where he’s set up—complete with a makeshift patio with two chairs—is where he wants to be. 

Brent, who was living next to The ARCHES Project across from the park, stands in front of his tent and patio-area. [Robert Scherle // Double Sided Media]

Around 8:30 a.m., a resident’s tent caught fire. Fortunately, this was around the time that a mutual aid group showed up to feed all the residents a warm breakfast. They rushed over with a fire extinguisher and helped put it out. Another resident, seemingly fed up with having to move, said “and you wonder why we can’t fucking live here.” 

A tent and the contents within it catch fire on the morning of March 2 during the camp’s preparations for a scheduled sweep. Mutual aid arrived at the same time and helped begin to put it out. [Robert Scherle // Double Sided Media]

Another resident, Stacy, was understandably frustrated with the conditions in which the camp was being swept. She said that the city probably just wanted to watch everyone slip and slide in the mud and they might not even come. 

Throughout the morning, Brent had wondered why the dumpsters that were usually by the curb were missing. He said this would end up making the city work harder. The answer came around 9:20 a.m. when at least two large blue dumpsters were dropped-off. 

John, a former resident of the camp, spoke about both his life and his knowledge of the camp there at the park. He doesn’t live there anymore. He said he was on the streets for 12 years and recently got he and his “old woman” into housing. They’re expecting a baby soon, too. 

Even though he doesn’t have to, he said that he walks to the park nearly every day to check on his friends at the camp. He also really likes watching movies on the TV that’s available in the recreation room at Arches. 

About his time living there, John said he was known as “the rock polisher” because, for four years, he polished a rock with a toothbrush to pass time. That got tiring, though. Since then, he’s taken on a new hobby: walking to the state’s various hot springs. 

He said that he had just gotten back to Salem from visiting Terwilliger Hot Springs — 125 miles away. He loves them but said that he’ll be spending the foreseeable future in Salem to prepare for fatherhood.

John said that the local youth who frequented the skatepark at the park advocated for the houseless to be able to stay there. However, he said that they stopped coming to skate when the camp grew and crowded the area making it unsafe. 

Brent spoke along the same lines and said that the residents across the street—in the park—weren’t able to keep the camp clean.  Both the dumpsters and the two port-a-potties fill up quickly.

The city posted several signs around the park declaring that the park would be closed on March 2 for maintenance. [Robert Scherle // Double Sided Media]

After the dumpsters had been dropped off and there was no noticeable presence of officers from the Salem Police Department, it was widely assumed that the sweep wouldn’t be happening. Instead, residents were being allowed to pack up and throw up what they needed to — at least until the next morning. 

Then, on Mar. 3, around 6:40 a.m., both city workers and SPD officers began arriving and parking in the area. 

Helping out on the ground that day was Hollie Oakes-Miller, a houseless activist and advocate who is also running for mayor. She spoke with DSM about what transpired

“The first group of community organizers showed up before 6 am with hot Starbucks coffee, water, and a variety of food items,” they said. “Since they arrived well before the sweep began, most park residents were still sleeping.”

They said that they arrived around 8 a.m. to absolute chaos. 

Due to the prior few days’ constant rain, the ground was saturated and the result was a lot of mud. Making matters worse, “a variety of trucks and machinery that were being used to ‘clean’ up the park” caused a lot of noise, Oakes-Miller said. “It looked and felt like a disaster zone. I’ve been around the majority of park residents in less stressful situations and today every resident I encountered was in full panic mode.”

The disabled residents of the camp were also not treated in ways that are “equitable and trauma-informed,” they said. SPD officers, especially, acted inappropriately. 

“I saw somewhere around ten members of SPD standing around talking to each other and laughing while other officers in different uniforms approached tents in teams to see if anyone was home, and if they were, telling them they needed to move,” they said. Some kicked over tents immediately after people had vacated them. City workers weren’t exempt either. They also cajoled with the officers. 

SPD didn’t appreciate the speed in which mutual aid was helping residents either. “Later in the day officers were threatening to throw away people’s belongings because our teams couldn’t load the U-Haul we rented, find residents somewhere else to go, unload their stuff, and get back to the park to do it again fast enough for them,” she said.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the callousness of so many police and city staff who were just standing around laughing and seemingly having a good time for several hours while panicked residents tried to pack of their homes with the help of community organizers,” Oakes-Miller said about their actions. 

In the end, the camp’s residents were forced to move. Initially, several of them moved to Pringle Park only for the location not to be suitable. Most ended up moving elsewhere.  

Speaking about what she would like to see happen in regards to houseless as someone who has both worked on-the-ground and has political aspirations, Oakes-Miller said: 

“We need to stop moving people around. It’s cruel, inhumane, and only adds to the trauma experienced by our houseless neighbors. It would be much more compassionate and cost-effective to organize a managed camp at Marion Square Park specifically for those with mobility issues, their family members and caregivers, and their pets. There is plenty of room at the park for these vulnerable people and also folks who want to use the park for leisure activities. 

Of course that is only one small solution for this immediate and particular crisis. We can’t solve the houseless crisis in the long term until the city, the county, and the state find more ways to bring housing online, and for many of the residents at this particular park that is going to mean public housing with full wrap-around services. We know that housing first is the most cost-effective solution to houselessness and we know cities all over the world have managed to invest in and incorporate public housing with great success. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we just need to look to other cities who’ve had success implementing evidenced-based solutions to houselessness. 

We also need to audit how city funds are spent, especially those already dedicated to solving this crisis, and make sure that what we are funding is actually meeting the intended goals. City budgets are moral documents and should reflect the values [of] our community. I am not convinced that we are doing that currently when the vast majority of city resources are going to the police at the expense of socials services and additional housing options that could actually help us solve the problems experienced by our houseless neighbors.”

“I love my community deeply and I am committed to growing our movement and building a city where working-class people, their families, and the poor can thrive,” Oakes-Miller said about their mayoral run. “Working-class people make our city and our society work and we believe that our city and society should also work for us and those that need us the most.” 

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