Officials say ‘NIMBYism’, zoning and unwilling landlords sink search for Salem emergency shelter

People camp downtown, along the former home of Nordstrom. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Attempts to establish new emergency shelter for homeless Salem residents fell short again and again in recent weeks and the search party says the outcome’s not likely to change.

“It’s been one strikeout after another,” said Jimmy Jones, executive director for the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency.

The hunt for a home for the homeless picked up urgency in December, when the city banned camping and appropriated $213,000 to fund more shelter beds at local churches. But two churches decided not to expand their shelter work, leaving local officials scrambling for a new solution.

Meanwhile, some homeless residents displaced by the camping ban have moved into wooded parks, Jones said. More than a dozen are now sitting and sleeping under awnings downtown.

Jones has made it his mission to find a new building to turn into a seven-nights-a-week shelter.

Ten buildings later — no deal.

In an email obtained by Salem Reporter, Jones told Salem leaders on Monday to blame “nimbyism,” zoning issues and property owners unwilling to give the city a temporary lease for a homeless shelter.

“It’s a risk that some landlords are willing to take, and others aren’t,” said Lorene McMurrin, a real estate broker with SMI Commercial Real Estate, who is helping Jones’ search. “And that’s the issue.”

Landlords have wanted long-term commitments, Jones said Tuesday. Or they wanted the city of Salem to outright buy the building. City officials are only hoping to lease through March.

“We haven’t found any who would be willing to lease for 90 days without a commitment to purchase the building,” said Kristin Retherford, urban development director.

Many places haven’t met the criteria for shelter, Jones said. He seeks a building with at least 10,000 square feet. Some are the right size, but don’t meet safety codes, cost too much or are too far from homeless services providers downtown, he said.

“We can’t use any old warehouse we stumble across,” he said. He noted that Hillcrest Youth Correction Facility has problems with water access, costs and distance from social services.

Buildings often aren’t zoned for homeless shelters and changing that is a lengthy process, Retherford said.

It’s unclear what, if anything, will happen. Jones said he’s “not optimistic” a building will be found that would check those boxes any time soon.

When asked if there’s a backup plan if no shelter materializes, Retherford said there isn’t one.

“Still look for properties,” she said. “It’s still the most viable option.”

Jones said his backup plan would have the city consider allowing people to camp somewhere. Otherwise, he said, conditions will deteriorate.

“It’s going to get worse as the rainy season plays out. There’s going to be a lot of health concerns,” he said. “The best thing that would happen is that these folks feel like they have somewhere they can go.”

The Salem City Council is set to meet Monday. Retherford said it’s unlikely there will be anything on the agenda involving shelters or designating a place to legally camp.

“Council may want to re-initiate those conversations,” she said. “I don’t know where they’ll take it or what they might ask for or ask us to bring back to them.”

A month ago, city staff produced a report highlighting 10 properties that could serve as a campground for 35 people. But City Manager Steve Powers said none were “ideal,” but he highlighted a section of Wallace Marine Park as a temporary option.

Accounting for the cost of portable toilets, garbage service, fences, lighting and staff to manage, a campground could rack up an annual cost of $1 million.

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