City News

Salem leaders decide to shelter homeless instead of setting up public camping

People sleep on mats at a warming shelter at First Presbyterian Church during a cold snap earlier this year. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Tasked with finding a place for homeless residents to legally camp, Salem’s elected leaders on Monday night decided instead to take them indoors.

The Salem City Council agreed to give $213,000 to the local warming shelter network, a group of churches that now open their doors on nights when temperatures in town are expected to hit freezing.

The money would allow two of the network’s four churches to open seven days a week, regardless of temperature. Councilors called for the new hours to start by Jan. 1 at the latest and continue through March.

The move would provide 140 more beds for the homeless, coming as the city’s new ban on public camping goes into effect on Monday, Dec. 16.

Councilors approved the plan 7-1, with Councilor Matt Ausec absent and Councilor Brad Nanke the lone dissenter.

The plan arrived on the night many expected the councilors to pick city property where homeless residents could set up camp. The city staff had been directed a week ago to produce a list of possible properties, acknowledging ever-present camps on downtown Salem properties that will be illegal soon.

The report highlighted 10 properties — narrowed down from over 650, according to City Manager Steve Powers — to serve as a campground for about 35 people.

When summarizing the report’s findings for council, Powers told councilors there was no “ideal” place for the campground, but he highlighted a section of Wallace Marine Park as a temporary option, or a more permanent spot in the parking lot along Northeast Front Street Northeast, near the Gilbert House Children’s Museum.

Accounting for the cost of portable toilets, garbage service, fences, lighting and staff to manage it, a campground could have cost the city around $1 million per year, the report said.

The council’s discussion zeroed in on the logistics of setting up a camp, such as whether the campground would be temporary or permanent, whether it would have fixed hours and how quickly it could be established.

For answers, Powers deferred to staff from the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, a homeless services provider that helped prepare budgets for the camps.

But one budget they drew up explored expanding the warming shelters. Ashley Hamilton, who works under action agency’s umbrella, called the shelter financing a “stopgap measure.” The city could pay two churches to open for the first 90 days of the year.

“Running our numbers, we’d be able to provide that service for about $213,000,” she said.

That would pay for people to staff and manage the shelters, according to documents the nonprofit provided to Salem Reporter. It would also pay for 130 cots, 300 blankets, 40 mats, and other supplies. It would also help pay for portable toilets, laundry service and daily garbage service.

Hamilton added that in the “few” days the warming shelters have opened this fall, 728 individuals checked in. She said that could increase with expanded days because sometimes people don’t know if the shelters are open.

“We’d be consistently open, rather than relying on social media or word-of-mouth or other various means to figure out is it 32 degrees, are they activated or not,” she said.

Councilor Chris Hoy soon moved to support that idea.

“It makes more sense to support the model she just outlined. We can do it faster. We can do it cheaper. It’s in a building. To me it seems like it’s got a lot of the benefits that the camping solution doesn’t have, and we can do it right away,” Hoy said.

Mayor Chuck Bennett agreed, adding that the two churches would provide more shelter beds than tents at a campground. Bennett noted that there may be some homeless residents who choose to stay outside.

“This scales so quickly,” he said. “It actually kind of beats out anything we could come up with on the ground. And it gets people out of tents – does not subject them to weather or flooding or living in a tent – if they want to move into these.”

What will happen after the temporary shelter funding runs out is unclear. Several council members, such as Cara Kaser, Tom Andersen and Vanessa Nordyke, said a campground could still be considered at a later date.

Nordyke, highlighting a recently published report that says the city of Salem spends at least $5 million annually addressing homelessness, added that the $1 million annual price tag of running a campground should not deter her peers.

“Let’s not forget the amount of money it has cost to not have this program,” she said. “The alternative is not spending nothing. The alternative is expensive too. And I would argue probably more expensive than what’s been proposed before us.”

Bennett agreed.

“This is an ongoing discussion. It’s a broad discussion. We’re going to be looking at a variety of ideas,” he said. “This doesn’t foreclose that. This just says, by January 1 we’re going to get some people into some housing.”

Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, said after the meeting the city would need to be planning before the expanded hours end in March.

“People are still going to need someplace to go,” he said. “I don’t think this is over.”

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


Salem bans open camping and now seeks a place to host it (Dec. 3, 2019)