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What happens when government agencies least prepared to provide assistance wind up as the first responders?

In January of 2010, 109 homeless people were known to be living in the Baldock Rest Area just off Interstate 5 on the southern edge of metropolitan Portland. They were lured – but for entirely differently reasons – by the same amenities that make the wayside a popular one for passing tourists: its hot and cold running water, its ample parking, the private shade of its Douglas Fir trees.

The homeless community, made up of self-described “Baldockeans,” was in many ways self-regulating and stable. One man who’d lived there 17 years considered himself the “mayor” of Baldock. Other members regularly coordinated community meals or car trips to a nearby truck stop. At times when children were living in the encampment, a school bus actually stopped there to pick them up. And when disputes arose over the prime panhandling spot near the restrooms, the community worked out an equitable schedule to share it.

But for all of the compelling details of how this ad hoc community had created its own social structure, what stands out most about this story is its setting. For a variety of reasons, the homeless often wind up living amid transportation infrastructure: rest areas, roadside rights-of-way, the underside of highway bridges, train stations or even moving train cars or buses.

This means that public agencies better equipped to run trains or pave highways must often act as the first responders to homelessness. It’s a sad commentary on how we handle these populations – in a society that doesn't treat access to shelter as a right – that the task falls to the front-line employees of transportation agencies untrained to do anything like this.

“Is homelessness a transportation issue?” asks Andree Tremoulet, a research associate at Portland State University who has studied the Baldock community. “One thinks of it probably more as an issue that housing and social service agencies might deal with. But in effect it’s a messy problem, so it extends into a lot of different areas.”

The Baldock case actually turned out to be an example of how agencies might best respond. Today, the entire encampment no longer exists. It had been located near the back parking lots of the sprawling and wooded rest area on both sides of the highway, so it wasn’t obviously visible to much of the public.

The southbound Baldock Rest Area on Google Maps.

Among those 109 homeless people, more than half were also transitionally homeless, or what the rest area’s longtime residents called the "shadow people." These were the newly homeless – the recently laid-off, or evicted, some with master’s degrees, one a college student – who were hoping to get back on their feet. "They were the people who came and went and were not really into the whole culture of being homeless," Tremoulet says, as opposed to those for whom it was "really almost a way of life."

In January of 2010, the Oregon Travel Information Council took over management of the Baldock Rest Area from the state Department of Transportation. Local residents at the time requested to have the encampment removed. The new management agency partnered with the DOT, local social service providers and law enforcement to come up with a strategy.

Ultimately, they worked on a case-by-case basis with the Baldock residents to individually relocate those who wanted help. “One person might have gone into rehab, other people reunited with their families, some people ended up in temporary shelter,” Tremoulet says. “There were all these layers – it was very complicated.”

Sixteen months later, Tremoulet was able to track down the long-term status of 22 households. Half of them had found permanent housing, 15 percent were in transitional housing, and 35 percent were still in unstable situations – a “pretty good” outcome, she says. The rest area meanwhile enhanced law enforcement coverage and revised its rules to allow people to stay on the property for up to 12 hours, giving the homeless a place to sleep (just as truckers do), while eliminating the possibility for a permanent encampment.

The agencies managed what Tremoulet calls a "humane displacement," one that treated the homeless as more than just a nuisance on public property. The original scenario, as Tremoulet discovered, is surprisingly common. In a survey she conducted of state transportation employees and rest area managers in 25 U.S. states and British Columbia, 70 percent of respondents said they had encountered homeless encampments. But most of them were in a weak position to respond.

"These people in the field are left to problem-solve on their own, and they don’t have any training, they don’t know if people are dangerous or not, or what to do," Tremoulet says. "And they don’t necessarily know what the parameters are in terms of what they’re allowed to do or not."

All of this suggests that transportation agencies may be a counter-intuitive place to start thinking more creatively about homelessness. Tremoulet recently presented this idea to a conference of transportation professionals, and one of them posed her a question that stretched the notion even farther: What if transportation engineers started designing bridges, for instance, to accommodate the needs of homeless people instead of chasing them away? That would certainly say something radically different about how we view the problem.

Top image: Kim Reinick/Shutterstock

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