ONTARIO — A homeless camp on a vacant commercial lot on East Idaho Avenue was dismantled on Wednesday by the Ontario Police Department. Five police officers along with Chief Steven Romero arrived just after 3 p.m. to tell the several transients who had been living there — out of cars, shopping baskets and crates — that it was time to move on, with several nearby business owners and employees saying there had been ongoing issues.
This isn’t the first time recently that Ontario Police have removed people from private properties, and it’s not likely to be the last.
“Squatting is a big issue in Ontario on vacant properties and buildings,” said Code Enforcement Officer Dallas Brockett, who was among the officers there Wednesday.
He said transients staying on private property without permission is a problem throughout the city and also prevalent in Malheur County and the state.
Bigger cities such as Portland and Hillsboro are experiencing “the same problem, just on a different scale,” Brockett said.
Some recent examples of the code enforcement officer successfully removing squatters include a vacant home in a residential neighborhood in the northeast area of town as well as a vacant rundown building on North Oregon Street. In both of these cases, Brockett worked with owners on getting permission to enforce trespassing.
Romero emphasized that squatters are people who do not have tenancy rights or permission to be there.
“Unless there is a legitimate rental or lease agreement,” he said.
Without one of those, police officers can trespass transients from a property — so long as the owner agrees to it.
That was the case on Wednesday, according to Romero, who said that after a complaint came in on Monday about the squatters, Brockett was initially unsuccessful in reaching the owner. At that point, he went down and asked the transients to voluntarily move on because they had no authority to enforce removal at that time. However, shortly afterward, the corporate owner of the property did contact Brockett, and the process was started to get the owner to sign a letter of agency. This gives power of attorney to the police department to “eradicate criminal behavior by criminal trespassing” on private property, said Romero.
“It’s a tool I used in California, that was ratified through local ordinances,” he said.
In addition, the chief said that it aligns with the state statute on citizen’s arrest.
‘Don’t be a statistic’
During the removal, one of the transients, Robert Cipolla, 51, approached Romero. He said he had lived in the Ontario area for 20 years and had been homeless off and on during that time. Romero took the opportunity to have a firm talk with him.
“You’re in a great town — don’t take it for granted. Get back on your feet and don’t be a statistic,” the chief said.
Pointing out that he and the homeless man both had gray hair so they were likely the same age, Romero asked Cipolla, “Do you really want to live on the street for the rest of your life?”
Romero told Cipolla he wasn’t going to enforce any littering or criminal charges that day, but that he expected them to clean the property up and move on.
After learning that Cipolla was both friendly with several of the transients in the Ontario area and originally from California, Romero further drove his message home, urging Cipolla to share it with the other transients.
“I came from L.A.,” Romero said. “I’m not going to let a small town like this turn into L.A.”
He said this meant Ontario Police Department will be tough on crime, but here to help, too.
The chief urged the man to go down to the Department of Human Services and get help to get to a better spot in his life.
Later, Cipolla said he has a 17-year-old daughter in Ontario. He said that he visits her often and that she is concerned about him living on the streets.
When asked what was next for him now that he had to move on, Cipolla said, “I guess I need to get an ID, so I can get a job, and take the steps to do what I need.”
To this he explained that he hadn’t done so yet because he was so often “wrapped up” in helping other homeless people out with their situations.
“Instead of worrying about being everyone’s friend, I think I need to be my own friend first,” Cipolla said.
As far as resources, not having an address hasn’t prevented him from getting benefits from the state such as SNAP and medicaid.
However, to this Cipolla added that he thought it was sad that rather than using the resources as a stepping stone to find a stable spot, so many people in his situation would “rather get a handout than work for it.”
Concerns from local businesses
Owners and employees of several nearby businesses are familiar with the squatters who were removed on Wednesday afternoon.
According to nearby business owners, the camp has appeared off and on for the past three years, typically increasing occupancy during the summer months.
The lot is the location of a former Wendy’s, and is on the south side of East Idaho Avenue between the Sinclair gas station and a strip of businesses further west facing Southeast Second Street.
One of those businesses is Diamond Gallery. Owner Coy Mott said he thought the trees at the back of the lot where the transients were camping kept attracting them back to that spot. Either way, the camp had become an ongoing issue for his business, adding that his wife, Debbie, had been working on finding a solution to the problem.
In addition to leaving behind garbage and trash, Mott said the squatters were often stealing his power to charge their phones and run extension cords from his store to the back of the vacant lot where they were staying. Sometimes they have even slept in front of his store, while it was open or closed, causing customers to complain. Mott said that transients go by his store all day long, adding that their numbers have “picked up immensely” over the last two or three years.
Expressing his gratitude that the city was finally able to do something about the ongoing problem, Mott said the Ontario Police officers “already have their work cut out for them, without having to worry about this, too.”
At the NAPA store, employees said there had been issues with the squatters “lurking into employee cars at night,” where the cars are parked behind the store on the edge of that vacant lot.
Zach Monham, an employee at Sinclair, said that he had become familiar with some of the “local panhandlers” over the years, who come into the store after getting money to buy beer. However, he said, store employees cut them off after the third or fourth beer.
In addition, he said, the squatters often stop inside the gas station to use the restrooms.
“They make a mess of the bathrooms, because some of them are bathing in them,” he said.
And some transients will even go through the store’s trash looking for cans to recycle, noting that some of the “new ones leave a mess,” while others who have been in the area for years, such as Cipolla, were pretty good about not doing that.
‘A win for the citizens’
Brockett has been effectively using the city’s civil penalty and derelict structures code to remove squatters.
According to an earlier interview with Lt. Jason Cooper, Brockett’s efforts with vacant building on North Oregon Street helped to remove what had become a “heartache and an eyesoar” for the city, adding that Ordinance 7-2A-1 governing derelict structures is a “win for the citizens and the city in taking care of dilapidated buildings.”
The ordinance allows the city to step in and take care of “any building that is a detriment to the safety or health and well being of the community,” Brockett explained.
This includes buildings that are unsecure, vacant, abandoned, have broken windows or doors, or other issues, he said.
In addition to removing squatters, a signed letter of agency with a property owner, allows officers to do other things such as get vehicles towed within 72 hours and put up no trespassing signs.
It’s not just buildings and lots that homeless people are occupying, some are living in their cars on public streets. This includes a man living in his car just north of the vacant lot. However, so long as the vehicles are registered, insured and moved every 72 hours, there is nothing the city can currently do about that, according to Brockett.
“There is no city ordinance against camping in a vehicle,” he said.
While Romero admitted the police department can’t help everyone who is homeless, he said they will work with people.
“We are in the business to help, not hurt,” the chief said. “It’s about taking care of our community, and treating each other like people.”
He emphasized to Cipolla and the other squatters on Wednesday that this included them cleaning up the property.
As his department works on solving an ongoing problem, Romero is taking action toward moving the city in a positive direction.
“As I continue to evaluate the city’s response capacity and meet with other community stakeholders, I hope to build a multi-discipline strategic ‘Wrap-Around’ response plan to deal with this national epidemic,” he said. “This issue is being re-played around the country with many police departments being asked to solve what has become both a social services and crime issue. I am learning that Oregon does not have the same resources or legal capacity that exist in California where I came from. However, this is a topic that will be dealt with in the coming months as my tenure as Chief expands here in Ontario.”