A sign marks a path frequented by people living at Sandy River Delta park in northeast Multnomah County.
A sign marks a path frequented by people living at Sandy River Delta park in northeast Multnomah County. MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND

On a Saturday in late September, several dozen individuals enthusiastically gathered with trash bags, gloves, and shovels on a mission to pick up garbage at the Sandy River Delta, the 1,500 acres of wooded trails and a grassy dog park at the confluence of the Sandy River and the Columbia River. The sprawling property, which carries the nickname “Thousand Acres,” is also home to several homeless encampments. The event was organized by Troutdale City Councilor Alison Caswell, who advertised the event on her personal Facebook group called “Coalition to Protect Thousand Acres.” Caswell later posted photos on Facebook after the day’s work, showing volunteers loading a Bobcat tractor with full trash bags and smiling for a group photo.

“A great day at Thousand Acres dog park!” Caswell wrote in a post accompanying the photos. She explained that the clean-up was meant to clear the area of garbage in anticipation of winter flooding, a mix that could cause an “environmental disaster.”

“We also wanted to meet as many homeless as possible and find a way to help them,” Caswell continued. “Many of the homeless thanked us for our efforts and asked to help next time.”

But not all of the people living in the parks’ woods were thrilled with her group’s work. Caswell’s cheery post leaves out the fact that several campers called law enforcement that afternoon to report the mass cleanup while it was going on, accusing Caswell and her volunteers of tearing down camps that were occupied and throwing away personal possessions.

“They are taking things from our homes,” one camper identified as Trish told Multnomah County Sheriff's Deputy James Monda, who responded to the call. “No one asked them for their help.”

Monda’s report from the incident states that Trish and several others had their homes trashed by the volunteer group, simply because no one was home when the crew came through. Reached by phone later that evening, Caswell told Monda that the complaints he had received were “fabrications and lies.”

Monda informed her that she and her volunteer group had likely broken the law by discarding individuals’ property.

“For the sheriff’s office to say that we were robbing people… I was completely shocked,” Caswell told the Mercury last week. “I know the only thing we did was pick up abandoned trash. I know in my heart that we’re doing the right thing.”

Caswell’s vigilante work at the Sandy River Delta is a reflection of the tensions at play in an area of Multnomah County that, despite a growing population of unhoused residents, is lacking in homeless services and general awareness of unhoused needs. As the region sees an influx in funding for homeless services, these attitudes will shape the future for unhoused people living in the county’s eastern reaches.

“I know the only thing we did was pick up abandoned trash. I know in my heart that we’re doing the right thing.” —Troutdale City Councilor Alison Caswell

The Sandy River Delta is, confusingly, overseen by both the US Forest Service and Oregon’s Department of State Lands (DSL). The state agency is responsible for the beds and banks of Oregon’s public waterways, like the Sandy River, while the Forest Service oversees the rest of the property. The area has been overseen by these public agencies since 1988.

The Delta has long been a landing spot for unhoused individuals in Multnomah County—for a number of reasons. Residents cite the protective tree cover, the flat terrain, and the area’s natural beauty as several factors that attracted them to the location. One of the biggest draws, however, is the general distance from civilization. The majority of camps in the Delta are located in the park’s eastern swath, where dense stands of red cedar and cottonwood meet the banks of the Sandy River. Most camps are reached through labyrinthine paths through blackberry bushes and ferns, making it rare to see any signs of camping from the park’s main trails.

Lloyd Lee, who’s resided in the park for three years, said he feels much safer living in the isolated woods than he would on city streets.

“It’s a more respectful environment,” said Lee, who moved into the park after his RV broke down. “People treat each other like people, not things.”

Residents say that the community of unhoused individuals who live on the Delta is what makes the space truly feel like home.

Teresa Alatorre became homeless in 2008, after losing her job, her mother, and her marriage in the course of a year. After a decade of short-term solutions, including failed attempts to secure housing, Alatorre moved to the Delta with her adult son in 2019, looking for a quiet, undisturbed place to camp. Neither of them knew anyone else living in the park. Alatorre said that on their first day, the pair went on a walk after setting up their tent. When they returned, the tent was gone.

“We could have just left after that, given up,” recalled Alatorre. “But I started asking other people out here if they had seen it. A few hours later, the tent was returned to me, no questions asked. That made me feel like this was a good community, like people were actually holding each other accountable. So we stayed.”

Alatorre said it took her a little while to feel comfortable at night in the park—“I think I had watched too many scary movies set in the forest,” she said—but she now feels right at home at the Delta.

In the winter, it’s normal for heavy rains to cause the Sandy River to spill over into the floodplain, threatening many of the nearby camps. Residents say they plan for the winter floods like any housed person would—whether that means relocating their camp to above the floodplain or temporarily staying in a motel for a few nights after a heavy rain. Alatorre said that living at the Delta through the winter has taught her how to “tie everything down” and “appreciate the sunny days.”

Residents currently estimate there being anywhere from 20 to 75 individuals living in the park. But the community of people who call the Delta home aren’t the only individuals that keep residents feeling supported and safe.

“It’s the groups that work with us that makes a big difference,” Alatorre said.

Remnants of a campsite in the woods of Sandy River Delta park.
Remnants of a campsite in the woods of Sandy River Delta park. MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND

She named two in particular that have gained the trust of Delta residents: Metro's Regional Illegal Dumping (RID) patrol and the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office Homeless Outreach and Programs Engagement (HOPE) team.

DSL has contracted with Metro for at least a decade to manage garbage pick-up and disposal at the Sandy River Delta. According to Metro spokesperson Kimberlee Ables, Metro’s RID team visits the Delta two to three times a month to pick up garbage collected by campers in trash bags distributed by Metro. It’s important to Metro staff that the campers identify what’s garbage themselves, to prevent personal property from being discarded.

“There’s a common misconception that our houseless community enjoys living among garbage,” said Ables. “But they do take a lot of pride in their space—they want their space to be clean as much as the next person. When we’re out working side-by-side to help them tidy up, we’re respecting that space. We’re helping them help themselves.”

Ables said that the RID teams’ visits provide more than just a trash pick-up.

“We always bring out social service workers to help reach folks who might otherwise not seek out their services,” said Ables. “We sometimes bring out food or mental health services or clothing. A lot of times we’re sending messages back and forth for people who’ve applied to housing, but don’t have a cell phone. We can be a trusted resource for them.”

The HOPE team does much of the same work as Metro staff at the Delta, aside from the trash removal. Established in 2017, the team of four spends their days visiting with unhoused individuals in east Multnomah County, including those residing at Sandy River Delta. Lieutenant Doug Asboe, who leads the team, said his team focuses on addressing each person’s individual needs—whether that’s filling out paperwork to get a new ID card, getting into permanent housing, or landing a job. Often, the HOPE team brings with them a mobile shower and hand-washing station.

Many of the services the HOPE team offers would require a long bus ride to downtown Portland, forcing residents to leave their campsites vulnerable to theft.

Their work is centered on lasting relationships, Asboe said, not a “one and done” visit.

“Last year we recorded that, for every individual that was houseless that we worked with, we contacted them about nine times over the year,” said Asboe. “Some of that is about just building a relationship and rapport, the work that needs to be done to gain trust.”

Another way the HOPE deputies gain trust is through equally upholding the law.

“We recognize that, historically speaking, the houseless community and law enforcement don’t have a good relationship,” said Asboe. “So we make sure that they know we’re there for them as well. Houseless communities are often the victims of crimes and those crimes can go unreported.”

Asboe’s team is usually called in whenever a homeless person is identified as a victim of a crime. Delta residents say they trust the HOPE team to take their reports seriously.

“It feels good to know they’re looking out for us,” said Casey Lewis, who’s lived at the Delta for three years. “We aren’t just the ‘bad guys.’”

“There’s a common misconception that our houseless community enjoys living among garbage.” —Kimberlee Ables, spokesperson with Metro's RID program

This relationship wasn’t always so amicable. In the past, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office would lead sweeping camp clean-ups in the Sandy River Delta, with the cooperation of the state and federal property owners. That model has since been replaced with programs like HOPE and RID that allow unhoused residents to keep their spaces clean while connecting to resources that may eventually lead them into permanent housing.

“We know that moving people who don’t have shelter is an extremely temporary fix that takes a lot of resources,” said Ali Ryan Hansen, a spokesperson for the DSL. “And often, it doesn’t keep people from returning to camp. We don’t support sweeping camps. We are interested in finding an enduring solution to reduce camping on public lands.”

Camping is prohibited at Sandy River Delta, but the agencies involved in its oversight aren’t interested in enforcing it against people who have nowhere else to go. That’s partially because its enforcement could land them in court. A 2018 ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals titled Martin v. City of Boise determined that any laws that penalize unhoused people for sleeping outside when there is no alternative shelter available is a form of cruel and unusual punishment. Thus, it is illegal for any jurisdictions that fall within the Ninth Circuit, including Oregon, to criminalize people for sleeping on public property unless there is adequate shelter available. And that’s not always an option in the towns near the Delta.

“Shelter space in east Multnomah County is very limited,” said Asboe. “If we meet someone who would like to move into a shelter, that usually means driving them to downtown Portland. It’s challenging to get a spot closer to home.”

Asboe said he’s learned from his years on the HOPE team that most of the unhoused people living in the eastern areas of Multnomah County previously lived in houses in those same communities. He and other outreach workers believe it’s important not to displace locals when trying to place them in temporary housing.

The county operates two shelters in these communities: the 90-bed Gresham Women’s Shelter and the Stark Street Shelter, a 43-room motel-turned-shelter in Rockwood. Gresham is also home to a privately-funded family shelter called My Father’s House, which has space for 28 families.

"We don’t support sweeping camps. We are interested in finding an enduring solution to reduce camping on public lands.” —Ali Ryan Hansen, spokesperson for the Department of State Lands

That number could soon grow. Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) has been meeting with Troutdale officials to find a location for a new alternative shelter in Troutdale, funded by new revenue from Metro’s Supportive Housing Services measure. Caswell, the Troutdale city councilor, said she is in support of the shelter, if it will mean campers can be removed from Sandy River Delta.

“Right now, the Boise rule keeps us from telling people to leave,” said Caswell. “If we can determine a better place for people to be, that’ll make all the difference. We just need to know they aren’t going to go back into Thousand Acres.”

Caswell characterizes the camping at the Sandy River Delta as a “humanitarian crisis.” She said that she regularly visits the camps to clean up garbage and talk to residents about their needs, or what she refers to as “truth gathering.” She believes homeless advocates and outreach groups like HOPE aren’t accurately depicting the problems taking place at the Delta. In a phone call with the Mercury, Caswell detailed rumors of weapon caches, sex trafficking, and a dumping ground for human bodies at the Delta. None of these theories are backed by crime data or by people living at the Delta.

Instead, Delta residents shared stories of Caswell’s group taking property without permission and placing heaps of garbage in the middle of the park’s paths for Metro to pick up later. Caswell said she brings “professional outreach workers” with her on her visits, yet refused to name their organizations.

Lewis, one of the Delta residents, said that those workers are known for offering short-term motel vouchers to people camping in the Delta—but not following through with longer-term support.

“I don’t believe that group actually cares about us or our needs,” said Lewis. “They just want us gone.”

Lewis said that those volunteers often take photos of people’s campsites without permission, and then post them online, where he sees people leaving mean comments. It doesn’t make him feel supported.

The public entryway to Sandy River Delta park.
The public entryway to Sandy River Delta park. MATHIEU LEWIS-ROLLAND

Multnomah County currently operates a team of outreach workers, called the Navigation Team, that visits unhoused people to offer services and support that could help them move into housing. The funds from Metro’s Supporting Housing Service measure is slated to expand the number of employees on that team to cover the county’s eastside.

Troutdale Mayor Randy Lauer is tentatively hopeful that the navigation team will address the unmet needs he sees in the Delta. He’s also eager to see anti-camping bans enforced in the public area.

“A navigation team is very much needed,” said Lauer. “We need to give people services and meet them where they are—but then be ready to enforce the rules and laws where camping is not allowed. Somewhere along the line we became unable to enforce the laws. It’s unbelievable what’s been allowed to happen out there. That needs to change.”

Hansen with the DSL said her agency will only consider proposals to remove the Delta camps if they accompany a humane plan to relocate the campers to an alternative camping space.

Lauer doesn’t want to see Troutdale property turned into an outdoor campsite or a collection of small heated pods like some sanctioned shelters in Portland. Instead, Lauer said he’d support hosting a collection of tiny homes that act as a transition from homelessness into permanent housing. He’d want these spaces to have time limits for tenants, to make sure it doesn’t become a permanent solution.

“I want to create something that our community is proud of,” he said. “Not a FEMA shelter.”

Lauer said that in his past visits to the Delta, he’s seen unstable structures and dugouts built in an area prone to flooding. He fears what the first floods of the season could do to the vulnerable population living on the banks of the Sandy River.

Not all elected leaders in towns neighboring the Sandy River Delta park believe the current situation needs an urgent fix. Scott Harden, the mayor of Wood Village, Troutdale’s neighbor to the west, believes camping in the Delta is a “viable short-term solution” for the region’s homeless population.

“The trees offer cover from the elements, it’s distanced from the housed population, and they have the support of the HOPE team,” said Harden. “To me, it makes a lot of sense.”

Harden instead wants local leaders to focus resources on ways to support the campers, whether that’s banding together to insist that more funds from the Metro bond fill gaps in their small towns’ flimsy homeless support networks. Support could come in all sizes: Harden said that Wood Village City Hall recently increased its wifi strength and created a free-to-use computer station, to give unhoused people access to online services.

“Our goal is to serve the people of this community,” said Harden. “And that includes those without homes. It’s not something all east county cities seem to support.”

"“We need to give people services and meet them where they are—but then be ready to enforce the rules and laws where camping is not allowed.” —Troutdale Mayor Randy Lauer

Harden believes Caswell should face criminal charges for removing property from the Delta camps on September 25.

“She did break the law,” said Harden. “You can’t clear a camp without legal authority. It’s clear she didn’t have the homeless in mind, or their safety of their possessions in mind.”

According to DSL’s Hansen, Caswell did not receive the permit required by the state to cleanup garbage at the Sandy River Delta, deeming the action unauthorized. The Multnomah County Sheriff's Office is still investigating the incident and interviewing people who said their property was taken or damaged by the volunteer group. County spokesperson Chris Liedle said that, once the investigation is complete, the office will forward the case to the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office to consider filing charges against those involved.

Caswell isn’t concerned about facing potential charges, and argues that she only cleared camps that other unhoused people told her were abandoned. She said it’s “ridiculous” to be accused of property destruction when she’s only cleaning up a public park.

“If someone wanted to go out to Thousand Acres and pick up a gum wrapper—is that illegal now?” Caswell asked. “Where does it stop? Where is the line?”

Alatorre, the woman who lives at the Delta with her son, said that she’d like to someday move back into a house, if it’s a possibility. In the meantime, she works on keeping her camping space tidy and staying warm on cold nights. She wants the public to understand that she’s a human being, with a family and a history no different than people living indoors.

“Some people who come out here, I can tell that they don’t see a difference between us and the garbage,” said Alatorre. “People need to know that homeless people aren’t trash.”