For Danny Quinn, it started with one simple goal: help clean up Gaddis Park.
Last spring, Quinn had been enjoying walks with his wife, Teresa, along the bike path adjacent to the South Umpqua River. But when they got to the part of the path along Gaddis Park, the scenery changed. There were large homeless camps and piles of trash — paper, discarded clothing, metal, styrofoam, various forms of used plastic, needles and human waste.
As the owner of a nursery in Glide, Quinn is used to making places look nice. He felt moved to bring that talent to Gaddis Park, and if by doing so he could somehow help the dozens of people living in the woods there, so much the better.
“When you see people sleeping in the bushes with nothing … I had to help,” Quinn said.
That initial desire to help clean up the park and its surroundings has in many ways become Quinn’s life’s work. He is at the park on most days, and not just picking up trash. He also hands out supplies like tents, sleeping bags, jackets and food to those living in the area and checks in on their well-being. He has become a trusted, welcome sight.
“There’s a lot of bad stuff down here, a lot of heartache,” Quinn said. “It broke my heart to see their faces. Nobody was smiling. In a small way, I’m trying to help people smile again.”
Quinn started slowly, picking up trash in November. He would leave paper gift bags filled with snacks as well as empty plastic garbage bags. He would write messages on the outside of the paper bags, like “Better days ahead!” and “Please help us clean up the river!”
Over time, those living in the area began to help, Quinn said. On his walks he would find the garbage bags he left filled with trash, waiting to be collected. Soon Quinn started talking to the people helping out, learning their names and getting to know them.
In January, Quinn organized a bigger cleanup with a group of friends and helpers. Before the cleanup he spread the word among the homeless people in the area so they wouldn’t be surprised. In the past, some “cleanups” really consisted of people coming in and just throwing away all the belongings of those living in the camps. Quinn wanted this to be different, wanted there to be mutual respect.
He even coined a term for it: Compassionate Cleanup.
“When we showed up they welcomed us, and told us they were grateful for the help,” he said. “There is garbage there that has been piling up for years — it is basically a homeless landfill that has been growing and growing. The unhoused residents there now have their own piles, for sure, but they did not create all of what is there, and they seem to be overwhelmed.”
‘MINI LANDFILLS’As winter set in, Quinn decided to do even more to help. He had an old tent he wasn’t using and handed that out. He bought a propane stove and gave it away. His family gave him some money for the cause and he bought some tents and jackets and distributed those.
Things began to snowball. Roseburg City Councilor Brian Prawitz saw some Facebook posts by Quinn's wife, Teresa, and contacted Quinn. Soon Prawitz directed people who had expressed an interest in helping to Quinn, and they donated money. Quinn bought propane heaters, and more tents.
The United Way donated items for Quinn to distribute, as did the United Community Action Network.
Quinn has also been working with city officials, with mixed results. He talks with Prawitz often, including one time the two of them walked around Gaddis Park in the pouring rain, as Quinn pointed out what he calls “mini landfills.” Prawitz has been responsive when Quinn asks him for certain items, like having a trash can put in.
“Brian has been wonderful,” Quinn said.
But he was less effusive about an employee in the parks and recreation department, who threw a fit when Quinn laid down some bark mulch in an area that he was trying to clean up. Quinn was told he had to fill out paperwork and sign a contract to become an official volunteer to do such work, which he has done. Quinn now has the keys to a gate he can open to bring his truck in to haul away trash, as well as a small plot of land near the entrance that he can landscape.
Quinn was at the park Saturday, hauling away trash and handing out oranges and other items of food. He stopped briefly to say hi to Earle, 30, who said he has lived along the river behind Gaddis Park for about seven months now.
Earl said he appreciates all of Quinn’s efforts, especially the cleanups, and often pitches in himself.
“I just like it when it’s clean and it looks nice,” said Earl, who asked that only his first name be used.
Douglas Holcomb is another person who likes to help Quinn out around the park, as he did Saturday. Holcomb said he lost his job because of the coronavirus and moved to Oregon where he is currently living in the Gaddis Park area. He walks around the Gaddis Park ball fields daily, picking up bottles, needles and other items he doesn’t want children playing there to be exposed to.
“I want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,” Holcomb said.
WORK AHEADQuinn said he knows there is still much work to be done to clean up the park, work that is unglamorous and often dangerous. In early January, a 48-year-old man was found dead in the South Umpqua River near Gaddis Park. A little over two weeks later the body of a 37-year-old woman was found in the river near the park.
Quinn said they very well may have died from overdoses.
“The amount of needles I find down here would blow your mind,” he said.
This past Monday the issue of the unhoused living in and around Gaddis Park came up at the monthly meeting of the city’s homeless commission. City Manager Nikki Messenger said Gaddis has a large contingent of homeless people living in tents and RVs around the park.
“The Little League season is getting ready to start and there are nine RVs that are parking there that we need to get moved, quite frankly,” Messenger said. “Parking is at a premium during Little League season.”
On Saturday there was only one RV in the parking lot, and one Roseburg Police Department vehicle there too. Quinn said several people living in the area told him the police had come through this week and made people go away.
Quinn said he worries about possible clashes with the homeless population in the area. He said he has heard of vigilantes who go through the area stealing belongings from the homeless people and even beating them up.
But he knows he can only do so much, can for now that entails continuing to clean the park up and help those living there.
“My intent was, and still is, to continue to clean up the catastrophic piles of garbage along the river, and to do so with kindness, compassion and respect for the people who are residing there,” he said.
News editor Mike Henneke contributed to this story.