National forest begins sheltering Oregon homeless

COTTAGE GROVE, ORE. — COTTAGE GROVE, Ore. -- Millions of Americans will spend at least a night inside a national forest campground this year, but only a handful will ever call one home.

Last week, a half-dozen families, most of them from this logging community, started setting up their shelters in the first campground in a national forest set aside exclusively for the homeless.


Amid the owls and the deer, the hawks and raccoons, the new residents began assembling a patchwork of tents, tarps and small trailers in an abandoned quarry pit 40 miles southeast of Eugene, Ore.

The scenery in these Cascade Mountain foothills -- a jungle-like ground cover of ferns and wildflowers shadowed by towering pines and steep cliffs -- is spectacular.


But the site for the homeless, although surrounded by luxurious wilderness, is, by Forest Service standards, a barren lot devoid of the amenities found at other campgrounds.

For the next few months at least, Frances Davis will call the 3-acre site her home. That will not amount to much of a change for Mrs. Davis, a quick-witted woman of 72, who has squatted in the Umpqua National Forest since November.

The $580 she gets each month from Social Security is not enough to cover rent in town, she said, but out in the woods the dollars stretch enough to buy groceries.

"I told my late husband in 1969 that I would never, ever go nTC camping again, and here I've been living in a campground for six months," said Mrs. Davis. "I guess God is telling me, 'Lady, get out there and give it another chance.' "

Forest Service regulations prohibit campers from staying in any one campground for more than 14 days, but for years, hundreds of people have taken long-term refuge in tents or under tarps deep inside the national forests.

Some have lived out of sight in the high country or in thick brush. Others, like Mrs. Davis, have openly set up tent homes in campgrounds, where there are fire pits and latrines.

After tolerating Mrs. Davis through the winter, officials ordered her out of the recreational campground by tomorrow. She is moving a few miles up the hill to the newly cleared campsite named Blodgett, where up to 25 homeless people will be allowed to stay indefinitely.

"We have a skunk, a bobcat, a raccoon and a little garden of flowers coming up over here," said Mrs. Davis, as she started to dismantle her plastic-roofed shelter. "It's going to be hard to leave this spot."


Of all the clashes in the national forests between such groups as dirt bikers and solitude-seeking backpackers, few are starker than the friction between the recreational camper and the forest squatter.

When hard times hit the oil-dependent states of Wyoming and Colorado in the early 1980s, the campgrounds of the West filled with newly homeless people settling in next to vacationers with $20,000 trailers.

"The national forest is probably just about the last stop for these people," said C. Daniel Lindstrom, who runs Community Sharing, a private charity in Cottage Grove that helps place families in the campground.

The families are chosen by the charity group, which also helps the families with food and supplies donated by the community. Mr. Lindstrom said about 100 people in southern Lane County are homeless.

The breed of homeless found in the park is a long way from the stereotype of the urban street dweller. Drug abuse and mental problems are seldom associated with the person who shows up at a national forest with sleeping bags and kids in the back seat, said Mr. Lindstrom.

More often, he said, they are families who had been supporting themselves with minimum-wage jobs until prolonged unemployment pushed them into the streets.


Persuading the Forest Service, which has a proud tradition of well-built and well-tended campgrounds throughout its 171 million acres, to get in the business of social policy was not easy.

Forest Service officials in Washington initially balked at the suggestion, then demanded that the homeless, through their Cottage Grove charity, put up a $1 million bond as insurance against forest fires. It is a requirement routinely demanded of loggers, miners and other long-term users of the national forests.

"We went everywhere, even Lloyd's of London, but could not get insurance," said Mr. Lindstrom. But then the Forest Service backed down and agreed to set up the campground without the bond as a pilot program.