Salem to close, clean downtown sidewalks where homeless stay

People camp downtown, along the former home of Nordstrom, on Jan. 7. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

4:15 p.m.: This article has been updated with more detail from city of Salem staff.

The city of Salem plans to close and clean parts of downtown on Thursday and Friday where homeless residents have slept since a citywide camping ban started last month.

Cleanups will occur Thursday along Center Street, the city of Salem said in a press release Wednesday afternoon. On Friday, crews will clean parts of Liberty Street.

According to the city, people have complained it’s hard to pass along the sidewalk and that the area has become unsanitary. Kristin Retherford, urban development director, said fecal matter, urine and syringes have all been found in the area.

“Residents and visitors have reported difficulty passing on public rights of way, sometimes threatening behavior, and unsanitary conditions, including solid waste and garbage accumulating in public areas,” reads the press release.

Likewise, downtown shops and restaurants are reportedly saying the camps have hurt their day-to-day business, the city said.

It’s unclear how many complaints have come in. Retherford said there isn’t a log of complaints, but said she averages “five or six emails a day” from businesses, workers, shoppers, and others who have complained.

Homeless residents began congregating in those areas in the weeks after Salem City Council passed a new law that prohibits people from erecting tents and other structures for shelter on public rights of way. The ban went into effect Dec. 16.

The council had also considered banning the practice of sitting or lying on public spaces, but decided against it.

The city noted that homeless residents aren’t breaking the law by staying on the sidewalks, but said the situation has become a health concern.

“While sitting or lying down on sidewalks is allowed under the city’s camping restrictions, the city will intervene when conditions deteriorate, and public health or safety may be at risk along sidewalks,” the statement said.

In the release, the city said property owners are still required by law to keep their sidewalks “clean and passable.” Likewise, individuals will have to “make way for cleaning efforts.”

City Manager Steve Powers said in the release that homelessness is a bigger issue than the city can solve on its own. He said the city’s priority is to help homeless residents, but that the downtown sidewalks have become unhealthy.

“Our primary concern is health and safety of all in our community including our unsheltered neighbors who often deal with untreated mental illness, addiction, and chronic health conditions worsened by long periods of homelessness,” he said. “Congregating in large groups under such unsanitary conditions isn’t a health situation for anyone.”

Mayor Chuck Bennett, when reached by phone Wednesday, agreed.

“I think it’s something that needs to be done,” Bennett said.

Before the clean-up occurs, Retherford said social services will reach out to the people sitting there to try and get them to use programs, shelters or day rooms that may be available.

Meanwhile, an effort is underway to find a building to act as a new emergency shelter that could open seven nights a week and place very little restrictions on who could us them.

There are an estimated 330 shelter beds offered in Salem, but the patchwork of organizations who run them have different restrictions. Some offer beds only to men, or don’t allow pets, or have high sobriety standards homeless residents can’t meet.

Still, after a month of searching for a new bed, those efforts have come up empty handed.

City officials and representatives from The ARCHES Project, a downtown homeless services provider, have toured 10 buildings but none have worked.

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