BLM kicks homeless out of Eugene nature park

EUGENE — Randall Hanson and Kenneth Sundrud know they soon will have to move from their home, and they don't have a clue where they will go.

For more than a year, the pair of homeless men have camped in the Bertelsen Nature Park in the West Eugene Wetlands. But by the end of the month, the federal Bureau of Land Management, which owns the property, wants Hanson, Sundrud and an estimated 150 other homeless people who are camping illegally in the park to clear out as part of a habitat restoration project.

BLM officials are warning campers that they have until July 29 to take their possessions and leave the nature area, near West Seventh Avenue and Bailey Hill Road, a few blocks north of busy West 11th Avenue.

Sitting on a wicker couch with cushions in an elaborate campsite with two small tents, camping chairs, a stainless sink, 55-gallon water barrel, ice chests and other items, Hanson, 53, said it will be hard to leave his makeshift home.

"It has turned into a little bit of a home-type situation, and that makes it a little harder to disconnect from," he said.

Early next month, after the campers leave and any trash or discarded items are hauled away, BLM contractors plan to thin the thick stands of oak and ash trees, and remove blackberry bushes that are concealing the camps from public view.

BLM officials know that rousting the homeless may appear hard-hearted to some.

But they say they have long wanted to thin the forests and remove invasive species to improve the wetlands habitat, which is home to threatened and endangered plants and the Fender's blue butterfly.

And they acknowledge that the recent, dramatic increase in the number of homeless camps on the property is leading them to act.

Homeless campers are causing environmental damage and posing fire hazards, and their presence is discouraging others from visiting the wetlands, they said.

"There are reports of illegal activity out there, but that is not the reason we are cleaning up the camps," said Sarah Bickford, the BLM's acting project manager. "We are doing it because we are a land management agency, and we are preserving the ecological benefits of these lands."

A walk on Tuesday through the nature area with Bickford and BLM spokesman Michael Mascari revealed a warren of trails leading to campsites hidden in the forest's thick foliage.

Some abandoned camps contain discarded clothing, sleeping bags, bicycles, grocery shopping carts, tires, tarps, tents, plastic cups and other trash.

In other camps, BLM workers have found rotting food, condoms, hypodermic needles and buckets of human excrement, Mascari said.

Also, homeless campers apparently are dumping garbage outside the wetlands, at the junction of West Seventh Avenue and Bailey Hill Road.

The BLM has periodically hauled the garbage away, but it may wait for the end-of-the-month cleanup before taking away the growing pile, Bickford said.

Neighboring property owners have called to report open fires in the nature area to the BLM, which is worried about the chance of wildfires, Mascari said.

Bird watching groups and nature classes have stopped coming to the park because of concerns about personal safety, he said.

In the forest, rumors are flying about the BLM's plans to remove campers.

"We've heard all kind of dates," Jolene Boatwright told Bickford and Mascari when they met her on the trail.

The BLM officials told her she needs to leave by July 29. Boatwright said it was helpful to get accurate information instead of rumors.

The BLM will begin posting letters on Thursday with details and deadlines about the camp removal and restoration work. More postings and follow-up visits by BLM law enforcement officers will take place in the days leading up to the July 29 deadline, Bickford said.

Boatwright, a former carnival worker who lives in a tent with her boyfriend, said she's deciding whether to move to a private campground that charges $20 a day.

"It's harder for people who have been here for years," she said. "Some people have cats and dogs."

Residents and neighboring business people said they are relieved the BLM will remove the camps.

Interviewed earlier in the day, Bill, a resident who did not want to give his last name, said he used to take his family to the wetlands to watch the sunsets and look for birds.

"Now, we don't," he said. "It's too dangerous. Too many (hypodermic) needles. It's gotten worse. We hear fights almost every night."

Problems don't stay in the wetlands, he said.

"Our home was burglarized nine days before Christmas," he said.

Out for a noon walk, John Coggins saw Bickford and Mascari in their khaki BLM shirts, and came over to visit.

He said he takes regular walks through the nature area, usually carrying a foldable baton for safety.

"We call the police once a week," said Coggins, who works at a nearby business that he didn't want to name. "We hear fights. People fighting and screaming, going after each other. People are lighting fires."

When the BLM officials told him about the camp removal and restoration project, Coggins said, "Man, I'm glad you are going to clean this up."

A short time later, Bickford and Mascari came upon Les Robnett near his campsite.

He had just been interviewed about the impending removal date by a TV reporter. He was upset.

"Everybody is pushing the homeless out, but what's the solution?" he asked Mascari.

When Bickford explained to Robnett that he had to be gone by July 29, he replied that he might need to stay a couple more days.

"We are giving you three weeks' warning, so you need to be completely out of here on the 29th," Bickford said, firmly.

If campers are not gone by that date, they will be subject to arrest and their possessions will be taken to a BLM office at 751 Danebo Ave. for temporary storage. After 30 days, unclaimed property will be considered abandoned and destroyed, according to the BLM.

A ruling last September by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that governments taking and destroying the possessions that homeless people leave in a public place violates the U.S. Constitution.

Bickford said the BLM consulted with its attorneys and believes its 30-day holding period before disposing of belongings is legal.

Meanwhile, after a temporary halt, the city of Eugene is planning to resume cleanups of homeless campsites. The city suspended cleanups in response to the 9th Circuit Court ruling, and spent the ensuing months developing its own 30-day holding policy.

The city on July 19 will start posting notices of cleanups at camps on city property near the BLM's Bertelsen Nature Park, telling campers they need to be gone by July 22 or else have their belongings removed, said Eric Wold, the city's natural resources manager.

"We don't want the people who are leaving the BLM site to just go to our property," he said.

The city also will notify homeless campers along the Willamette River in Alton Baker and Skinner Butte parks to clear out of their camps by a yet-to-be-determined deadline or else their belongings will be removed, Wold said.

Items taken from the camps will be stored at a city facility at 115 N. Garfield St. Homeless campers will have 30 days to claim their belongings before their possessions are disposed of, Wold said.

The city cleans up homeless camps because they are illegal and they present health hazards, he said.

"There are no facilities for people to go to the bathroom, and there is no place for them to dispose of their garbage," Wold said. "So when these camps become established, they really are public health hazards, and they make the parks less desirable and less usable for everybody else."

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