Homeless women in Salem get new chance for a safe night indoors

Rhonda Wolf, CEO of United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley, shows one of the rooms used for Safe Sleep, a new shelter for homeless women at Inside Out Ministries (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A new shelter for homeless women in central Salem has sprung to life in just a few months after a local church teamed up with United Way.

The all-volunteer effort, called Safe Sleep, will open its doors to 10 homeless women Dec. 15, with eventual plans to host up to 50.

Inside Out Ministries, a Seventh-day Adventist church on Front Street, is the host. United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley will manage the shelter, recruiting and training volunteers and raising money to remodel the sleeping area and buy bunk beds.

Pastor Dale Cardwell said about three years ago, the church congregation decided to focus on serving their neighbors and holding less traditional services.

“We decided we didn’t want to be like a country club anymore,” Cardwell said. “We’re all pretty sure that the gospel has very little to do with theology or doctrine and it has to do with being the hands and feet of Jesus,” he said.

At the time, the church was in a different building and couldn’t host people overnight. About 70% of the congregation is currently or has been homeless, and Cardwell said in the course of their outreach work they’ve heard many stories of women being assaulted, robbed and raped on the streets.

“We’ve heard those kinds of stories consistently ever since we decided we wanted to really get out and hear what’s really going on on the streets,” he said.

A few months ago, Inside Out moved to a new home, which had many extra rooms that weren’t being used. Around the same time, they baptized two new church members, both homeless women, who shared their experiences of being assaulted while outside.

The stories church members heard over the years and the new space led to action.

The congregation’s reaction was, “We have got to get them off the street at night,” Cardwell said.

Salem is short on shelters for homeless people in general and the need is especially great for women, said Ashley Hamilton, ARCHES program manager. ARCHES collects data on all homeless people in the region and registered 392 new single homeless women in their system in the past year.

Over one-third reported that they’ve been assaulted since becoming homeless. Many are also fleeing domestic violence, Hamilton said.

Existing shelters for families and homeless single women are often full. Single women can stay at Simonka Place, run by Union Gospel Mission, which has about 100 beds, and Lighthouse Shelter, run by the Salvation Army, but there aren’t enough beds to go around.

Church elder Dianne Rush reached out to United Way to develop a plan for a shelter, open every night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

Elizabeth Schrader, resource development director at United Way, said the idea immediately appealed to their staff.

Many have heard stories about the lengths homeless women go to avoid sexual assault on the streets, including one woman who regularly urinates on herself before going to bed so she’s not targeted, Schrader said.

Organizers have relied primarily on word of mouth to publicize the shelter because its capacity is so small.

“We’re not going to have any problem getting 10 women here,” said Rhonda Wolf, CEO of United Way.

Women don’t have to be sober so long as they’re not disturbing other guests, and there’s no proselytizing or other religious component of the shelter. The goal is simply to get them off the streets.

“You do not have to jump through hoops to come in to the shelter,” Schrader said. “The idea is that they’re coming home. They have a safe place.”

To start, women will sleep on mattresses on the floor, spread between four small carpeted office rooms.

United Way is seeking to raise $150,000 in the next few months to knock out interior walls to the shelter so it can hold up to 50 women, add a shower in the bathroom, remodel the existing kitchen and buy metal bunk beds and a commercial washer and dryer.

To make sure guests are comfortable, only women can volunteer. Shifts run nightly from 7-11 p.m., 11 p.m.-3 a.m. and 3-7 a.m.

Volunteers can sign up or donate money toward the goal on the United Way website, or learn more by calling the office at (503) 363-1651.

United Way is also hiring a security guard to make sure predators are kept away from the shelter, Wolf said.

News tip? Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.