With eviction looming for homeless camp, its residents and city leaders left with questions

Scattered trash and belongings at an encampment near Marion Square Park. The city announced this week it plans to evict the camp Tuesday. Concerns arose afterward about a program that provides free meals. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

After word spread the city of Salem would cancel a program that helped feed homeless near Marion Square Park, The ARCHES Project said Friday it would try to fill the void.

Jimmy Jones, who oversees The ARCHES Project as executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said ARCHES will reach out to volunteers who want to keep serving meals.

Jones said ARCHES would host the meals on its southern parking lot, across the street from the park where the volunteer food-delivery had been held for years. Jones said he understood the city’s reasoning, but still felt something should be offered.

“Taking food away from 150 people is a problem,” Jones said, adding that wet and cold weather further complicate life on the street. “Withdrawing food from them at this time is a problem.”

No camping will be allowed, Jones said. He added that they could feasibly move the feed indoors, once the organization’s $1.4 million rehabilitation center is completed. He estimated it could be built later this year.

The news comes after city officials revealed Wednesday they planned to evict approximately 30 people who lived under the Marion Street Bridge. A press release shortly after cited a rise in “reports of crime, vermin and activities” led the city to sweep the encampment.

Entwined with that eviction was a program the city started a year ago to help volunteers feed the homeless.

According to Dan Sheets, a retired radio station worker who has delivered meals for years, volunteers had been taking food to the homeless for 15 years. He said locations bounced around in the early years but Marion Square Park turned out to be ideal.

“We were underneath the Marion Street Bridge for a number of years just for the convenience of being able to drive up and serve meals, protection from sun or rain,” he said. “It’s just a nice community place to do it.”

Still, the park withstood more damage and littering, said City Manager Steve Powers. The city then enacted a program to issue permits to volunteers via the public works department. The department also placed barricades under the bridge to corral trash, city officials said.

The idea was to “provide some structure around the area so that if (volunteers) wanted to come in — permitted — to distribute there were tables and barricades there to contain the garbage and other activities,” said Mark Becktel, of the city’s public works department.

City Manager Steve Powers, left, spokesperson Heather Dimke and Dan Clem, executive director of Union Gospel Mission, talk at Salem City Hall on Friday about the upcoming homeless sweep. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

More homeless people started staking their tents under the bridge after that, said city officials. Sheets said he initially embraced the tables and barricades.

“We thought it was a nice, humane gesture by the city to do that but over time it was their ruin,” he said.

Salem Police Department spokesman Lt. Treven Upkes said Friday that trash, property damage and crime soon followed, leading to the camp’s eviction and the pause of the program.

The city’s future involvement in feeding the homeless with the permitting program is unclear. On Friday, before Jones announced ARCHES would offer to host the volunteers, Powers said he had no timetable to restart the program and planned to meet with volunteers.

One volunteer, a 62-year-old trucker named Kevin Hogan, told Salem Reporter he and his family spent the past 11 years taking breakfast to the homeless one Saturday every month. He said they fed everyone from teenage runaways to veterans to older people.

“It’s not about me. There’s just such a large group of individuals who care,” the Silverton resident said.

He said he didn’t mind where the feed was held, so long as he could help. He said his only worry with serving from the parking lot of ARCHES was that, unlike under the bridge, there was no shelter from the elements.

“We’ll have to get some sort of tent or something to cover the feed as we’re putting it out,” he said. “That’s my only concern. I don’t care where we do it. My only desire is that we get a chance to help.”

Perspective from the homeless

The city’s eviction is scheduled for Tuesday morning. Some in the camp told Salem Reporter that they understood why it had to happen. Others said it leaves them in a tougher spot.

Kevin Graham, a 56-year-old veteran, said he moved to the camp in November and has seen plenty of rats running through camp, as well as fights and drug use. He said when the camp is swept he will probably join the camp in Wallace Marine Park.

“They brought it on themselves, bud,” he said. “The bullshit. The stabbings. Can’t we all get along?”

Kevin Graham, 56, moved to the camp with his wife in November. He said people living there “brought it on themselves” with violent behavior and drug use. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Some said they had nowhere safer to go. Renee Martinez, who started sleeping there after her mother kicked her out, said she’s addicted to methamphetamine and there is no shelter in the city that will let her in if she can’t pass a drug test.

“We need more homeless shelters,” she said. She added she’s waiting for housing through Salem’s Homeless Rental Assistance Program. In the mean time, she said using meth makes it easier to stay up at night and avoid being assaulted.

Peterson, a Desert Storm veteran with a leg injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, said he sympathizes with the city’s desire to stop violence at the camp. But most residents, he said, are just trying to find somewhere safe to sleep.

“They don’t have to close it down. They just have to get rid of the bad apples,” he said.

Peterson is on a waiting list for a low-income housing voucher, but said there’s no where else for him to go until that comes through. Many of his fellow residents are in the same boat.

Frank, a homeless man passing through the camp, said residents had brought the eviction on themselves by causing problems. He said he tries to sleep on the street but sometimes comes to camp when it gets too cold.

Three years ago, he was studying psychology and writing at Chemeketa Community College when his roommate moved out, leaving him with bills he couldn’t pay. He became homeless.

“I used to sit on the bridge on Mission (Street) and feel sorry for these people,” he said. Many, he said, don’t want a way out.

Peterson shows off his tattoo at Marion Square Park on Friday. Peterson is on a wait-list for a low-income housing voucher and said there is no were else for him to go. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

The eviction notice taped under the Marion Street Bridge. The city will sweep the camp Tuesday morning. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Clothes and shopping carts were among the most prevalent items strewn about the encampment on Friday. The camp is expected to be swept Tuesday morning. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

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