City News

With homelessness an issue, Salem residents “less optimistic” about city’s future

A homeless woman walks behind a city of Salem public works vehicle during an eviction of a camp under the Marion Street Bridge in January. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Salem residents’ confidence in Salem city government is sinking because of issues around the homeless, according to an annual city survey.

The survey found that residents also worry about state and national politics, the economy, driving during rush hour, paying bills and finding space for community events.

Still, residents remain confident in basic services like police, fire, parks, the library and water treatment, according to the 35-page survey report released last week. The annual survey helps city officials help chart city priorities going forward.

Homelessness as an overarching concern for Salem residents did catch the eyes of Salem officials. City Manager Steve Powers told Salem Reporter on Friday that homelessness continues to be a challenge.

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“I think it’s indicative of, at least the western part of the United States, the challenge of homelessness we have in the country and Salem is not immune to that challenge,” he said. “I think the city is continuing to house people, continuing to support agencies that assist the homeless.”

Portland firm DHM Research in September surveyed more than 450 people by phone or online. The number of people is a “sufficient sample size to assess resident opinions generally,” the firm said.

READ: City of Salem 2019 Survey, conducted by DHM Research.

Out of all the issues listed on the survey — including roads, traffic, crime, housing, taxes —respondents named homelessness the biggest issue. While it has been a top issue since 2016, the number of people raising it as their concern has grown significantly.

In 2016, 7% of respondents named it their top issue. That jumped to 26% in 2017, 33% in 2018 and 41% this year.

Similarly, less than one-third of people say they felt Salem did a good job ensuring residents have access to affordable housing.

When asked if they felt Salem is heading in the “right direction” or on the “wrong track,” more residents said the latter. It was the first time since 2016 that disapproving residents outnumbered supporters, the survey said.

Powers and Mayor Chuck Bennett noted, however, that while the survey charts people’s concerns, it doesn’t provide people an opportunity to indicate what they want their officials to do. Bennett did say city officials should take note of the trend.

“I think we can always do more,” said Bennett, adding that county governments, other cities and the state can also be helping. “I think we’re following the best practices for dealing with homelessness that have been identified nationally. We’ve done all kinds of programs. We had to start from zero because this is not a traditional role for cities in Oregon.”

More Salem tax dollars have been spent helping homelessness recently. Since 2017, the city of Salem enacted a rental assistance program specifically for chronically homeless people. That program has housed more than 200 people.

The city has also given millions to homeless services providers. In March, Salem gave $1.1 million to The ARCHES Project in part to expand its day center and offer some of those services. And in June the city gave $750,000 to Union Gospel Mission to help build a new men’s shelter.

Homelessness has also made headlines for reasons less popular with the public. The city has evicted camps in parks and under the Marion Street Bridge and recently proposed a new law aimed at curbing homeless people’s presence downtown.

Bennett said the survey indicated that housing should continue to be a focal point of Salem City Council.

“I think as we talk about housing, I think we’ll continue to be very supportive of additional housing — of all types, particularly affordable housing and housing for the homeless,” the mayor said.

The full report can be read online and dives into numerous topics.

Besides homelessness, the survey found that people are concerned about transportation. Residents ranked road maintenance and traffic congestion as second and third among their issues.

People also overwhelmingly supported city services, professing strong satisfaction with police, fire, parks, street lighting, the library and more. Nine out of 10 said they were satisfied with such services.

Still, the survey found residents in west Salem worry they don’t receive the same level of services as the rest of the city.

“They have more negative opinions about living in Salem on a number of fronts, including how safe it is to walk and bike in the city,” the report said.

Residents also worry about a natural disaster hitting at any given time and whether they’re prepared. They also feel “less connected” to their city government, the survey found.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.

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