Homeless person in Salem quarantined in motel after testing positive for COVID-19

Salem installed portable bathrooms at Wallace Marine Park after closing the permanent restroom and shutting off the water to the drinking fountains because of concerns about virus spread. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

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The outcome that many of Salem’s homeless service providers have been fearing for weeks has become reality as one unsheltered homeless person has tested positive for COVID-19.

The individual is now quarantined to recover in a motel as the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency works to get others who have either tested positive or are at greatest risk of the most severe outcomes of the disease, according to Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen.

So far, the agency has placed 40 people into motels, paying for the expense with $150,000 from the Oregon Housing and Community Services Department. They started placing people into motels on Thursday, March 19.

Ashley Hamilton, The ARCHES Project program manager, said her agency wasn’t involved in getting the homeless person sick with COVID-19 to the hospital, but was told the infected person was determined to be in condition not requiring hospitalization.

Hamilton said homeless residents are provided a motel stay through a hospital or service provider referral or individuals can contact ARCHES directly to request the motel shelter.

People must have tested positive, be awaiting test results, are older than 55 or are medically fragile with underlying medical conditions like cancer or a weak immune system.

Another homeless person self-referred into the motel program, saying they had tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago, Hamilton said. Her agency didn’t confirm the diagnosis.

If an outreach worker hears that someone is experiencing active respiratory symptoms, they’re seeking testing for them at the south Salem clinic.

But on Wednesday, Salem Health announced it would stop testing people with respiratory illnesses for flu or the novel coronavirus at outpatient clinics and the hospital emergency room.

The area’s community action agency entered phase three of a four-phase plan on Friday, March 20, which included restricting access to the ARCHES building in downtown Salem and providing services such as housing placement remotely as most of the agency’s 370 staff work from home.

Initially, outreach workers focused on getting hundreds of tents and sleeping bags to homeless people that had recently set up camp in Wallace Marine Park and Cascades Gateway Park after the city voted to repeal a portion of the camping ban at an emergency meeting on March 17.

Hamilton said they’ve been trying to get people to space tents 12 feet apart and limit occupancy to one person.

For people with mobility issues who use a wheelchair or a walker, advocates tried to find a suitable area in the park that wasn’t too muddy.

Hamilton said there are other encampments in Northeast Lancaster Drive that outreach workers have been focused on for the last few days to provide food and camping supplies.

She said one emerging concern is that some people holed up in their tents are starving.

“I’ve seen several posts online,” Hamilton said. “People haven’t eaten in two, three, four days. People are afraid to leave their tent.”

On Thursday, an outreach team distributed a couple hundred pounds of food donated by The United Way to encampments around the city. Sack lunches are still being distributed at The ARCHES Project, but the day room has restricted access.

People can only come inside ARCHES four at a time to get lunches, use the restroom and check their mailbox. The shower truck is shut down and people can’t use the day room.

Executive Director Jimmy Jones said his agency is talking about assembling a hazard crew to re-open showers.

Right now, there are three to four outreach workers at a time going out to camps to deliver food, hygiene supplies, camping equipment and water.

The city closed permanent bathrooms and shut off drinking fountains at both Wallace Marine Park and Cascades Gateway Park because they present a risk of spreading the virus, said city spokeswoman Kathy Ursprung.

Instead, the city set up portable restrooms and potable water barrels at both parks as well Marion Square Park.

Jones said there have been a lot more people than the city anticipating showing up to camp in the parks. Last Friday, he said there were around 100 campsites at Wallace Marine Park and another 60 at Cascades Gateway Park.

“The volume of folks who have come there has surprised everybody,” he said.

According to preliminary numbers from the most recent survey, homeless service providers said there are 908 unsheltered people living in Salem and an additional 315 who are in shelter. Such counts historically undercount the homeless population because they can be hard to locate.

Nonprofits in Salem believe that number is somewhere between 1,300 and 1,800 in the region. 

Community Action has plans to scale up outreach work if the viral situation continues to worsen.

“There is a very narrow window for us in this work. We have to keep our staff safe but also make sure the homeless have everything they need to survive this crisis.” Jones said.

Jones said workers are trying to calm down homeless individuals as anxiety has increased dramatically.

“All of the things that the homeless population rely on to survive are in a limited quantity and limited supply at the moment,” Jones said.

The next phase of the agency’s response plan involves closing everything. Jones doesn’t anticipate getting to that level, where infection rates would be so high it would be dangerous to walk out the front door.

“It’s going to take something really extraordinary for us to get to phase four,” Jones said.

Normally, the nonprofit doesn’t engage in efforts to keep people from becoming homeless, but with the anticipated economic fallout from the pandemic, that may change.

“This crisis is different, we may have to shift gears,” Jones said. 

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.