This story was updated at 4 p.m..
Four people died early Sunday when a vehicle crashed into a homeless camp near Front and Division streets just west of downtown, Salem police say.
Salem police said in a Sunday afternoon news release that the traffic crew “believes alcohol may have been a contributing factor.” The driver of a two-door sports coupe was traveling north on Front Street past Union Street when the vehicle left the roadway and crashed into the camp, pinning two people under the car.
Two people died at the scene of the 2 a.m. crash, police said. Four others were taken to Salem Health Hospital where two later died. The driver, who was the sole occupant of the car, was also taken to hospital, police said.
The camp is in a small triangle of trees and grass just west of Front Street NE where it starts to curve. It is sandwiched between Front Street NE and a train track. City officials say the grassy area is property of the Oregon Department of Transportation. The number of tents and campers at the site is unknown.
As of Sunday afternoon, police had not released the names of those who died, pending notification of family, or updates on the conditions of those hospitalized.
Officials said officers helped several uninjured campers recover some of their belongings and provided shelter assistance. Three individuals were taken to a local motel. Salem homelessness advocates have also been contacted for resources for those affected, police officials said.
Nathan Rose said he and his girlfriend were in their tent when he heard two loud bangs. Rose said the silver sedan narrowly missed its tent.
When he came out of the tent, he saw some of his friends stuck under the car.
“The moment I saw what had happened, the first thing I did was drop my phone and call 911,” Rose said.
He said he helped pull one person out from under the car, but witnesses were unable to help the others.
“From there it was just chaos,” he said.
Front Street was closed between Union and D streets for several hours while police investigated the crash. It reopened shortly before 9 a.m.
“I just wish there was somewhere to go”
The accident occurred in the area near the new Salem Union Gospel Mission Men’s Shelterwhich has approximately 300 beds and ARCHES, which offers assistance services.
“In the winter, homeless people congregate downtown to try to get closer to food, dry spaces and warmth,” said Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which helps provide services to people struggling with “Our homeless people spend most of their day trying to find a safe place to sleep and rest, but events like this remind us that there is no there is no safe space.”
He said nearly 50 homeless people have died in the past two years, but this is the first incident involving so many people.
“No one deserves to live in homeless conditions and they certainly don’t deserve to die there,” he said. and that everyone deserves a warm, safe and dry place where they can live with dignity.
The number of people experiencing homelessness continues to far exceed the shelter and transitional housing options available in Salem, and the area around the shelter and other services is a common place where people can set up camps.
“I just wish there was a place to go without having to worry about this stuff,” said Ryan Wright, who witnessed the crash.
More than 1,000 people sleep outdoors in the Salem area each night. The Salem City Council has created two pallet shelter locations in the city and is in the process of adding additional locations for transitional shelters.
The city allowed camping in some of its parks in the early months of the pandemic, but last summer reinstated its park camping ban and emptied the parks. Since then, camps have sprung up in a number of areas as people were moved from place to place.
“My friends are dead”
At least a dozen Front Street NE campers woke up early Sunday to a partially flattened campsite. Piles of clothes, bags, tarps and a knocked down tent line the path of the car. Two trees in the grassy area have been marked.
“I knew there were children here in a tent,” Rose said of the victims. “The tent was no longer there and the car was sitting where the children were.”
Rose returned to camp on Sunday afternoon to sort through the pile of debris and collect some of her friends’ belongings, although she was unsure what belonged to whom.
Mike Wade did not witness the crash but came to camp after hearing that a close friend of his had died. He spent the morning helping others at the camp trying to recover their belongings. ARCHES workers were also at the camp, providing breakfast and replacement tents.
“It makes me weaker every day to hear about us dying one by one,” he said. “My friends are dead and I don’t know what to say.”
A man who goes by the name “Animal” also said he was friends with one of the deceased individuals. “He was a nice guy. He cared about the people around him,” he said of his friend.
“Animal” said he stayed at the homeless camp near Front Street until Saturday, when he moved to Wallace Marine Park. He returned Sunday morning after hearing about the accident, to check on the other campers.
“If we actually had a place to go, things like this wouldn’t happen,” he said. “It kind of forces us to do what we can when we can.”
City spokeswoman Kathy Ursprung said the city cleaned up Marion Square Park in that area in early March in response to public health concerns about the conditions. She said the cleanup focused on areas near the park like sidewalks and under bridges.
Jones said he did not believe the camp sweeps contributed directly to this incident, saying many people slept there near the road before the sweeps.
“It’s the result of someone’s violent and reckless behavior while driving. It could have happened at a school, at a bus stop or at the farmer’s market,” he said. “We need to spend time as a community to find more land where homeless people can sleep farther away from the highways. I hope the city continues to work on this.”
“My condolences go out to the friends and family of those affected by this terrible tragedy,” Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett said. “We continue to provide alternatives to unmanaged camping and encourage people to access these resources.”
Salem City Manager Kristin Retherford said in a statement: ‘We are deeply saddened by the tragic deaths of four members of our community early this morning when a vehicle struck an encampment along Front Street. .”
“Our prayers go out to these people, those who survived the accident but are currently hospitalized, those who were not injured but suffered the trauma of this horrific event, and the families and friends of those who passed away today,” Retherford said. “We mourn with them and support them in their bereavement. We coordinate with nonprofit organizations and with city case managers to provide assistance to survivors.”
In one Facebook statement, Councilwoman Vanessa Nordyke called on people on social media to “blame” homeless people for camping near busy roads. While it’s true that unprotected people have camped near busy roads for years, she said, that doesn’t excuse the driver’s “reckless” actions.
“It’s only a matter of hours, but I’m already seeing posts on social media accusing homeless people of camping near a busy street. Like they deserve to die,” Nordyke wrote on his Facebook page. “The dehumanization of homeless people, especially in a time of immense suffering and grief, is totally unacceptable. Salem is better than that.”
Nordyke said she asked Mayor Bennett to observe a minute’s silence at Monday night’s council meeting for the lives lost in the crash.
Whitney Woodworth covers Salem city government. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @wmwoodworth
Virginia Barreda covers breaking news, public safety and the courts. She can be reached at email@example.com 503-399-6657 or on Twitter @vbarreda2