Camping in Salem parks could end after Monday night city council vote. But questions remain over timeline

Kevin Holloway, a nurse with Northwest Human Services, talks with George Dimo about an injury at Dimo’s camp in Cascades Gateway City Park on March 2, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When houseless people ask Betty Jordan where they will go when camping at Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks ends on June 1, she tells them, “It hurts me to not have answer for you on that.”

“There’s really not any good way to put it to anyone,” said Jordan, a navigator at the Salem Housing Authority.

About 500 people will have to leave both parks if the Salem City Council votes Monday night to extend an emergency ordinance for Covid without also extending a  provision that allowed camping for the past 14 months.

Emily DuPlessis-Enders, city spokeswoman, said camping will end gradually instead of abruptly in a week.

“The legal side of the emergency declaration will change, but in practice the realistic expectation is it’s going to take much longer to get people to move to other locations. We have to be patient; it’ll take time,” she said.

During a work session on May 17, several councilors expressed concerns about where people would go should the camping provision expire without a solution in place. They also expressed concerns that people would return to living on downtown streets.

Monday night’s resolution includes an additional paragraph that’s aimed at councilors’ concerns and acknowledges that “complete elimination of camping in city parks and public areas, whether legal or illegal, is unlikely to occur in the near future” and that any reduction of camping will be gradual.

Councilor Trevor Phillips said he was encouraged by the added paragraph and felt his concerns raised in the work session about June 1 being too soon were addressed.

“We’ve got to take the next step,” he said. “With the way city staff have crafted this, I feel more comfortable supporting it.”

Councilor Vanessa Nordyke said her expectation is that the move will be gradual as more shelter options open in the coming months, including Union Gospel Mission’s new location that’ll open next month and a Project Turnkey motel that will come online in the fall.

Both Nordyke and Phillips didn’t know the exact length of time that would considered “gradual,” which also isn’t specified in the resolution.  

For weeks, Jordan and other homeless advocates have been asking unsheltered people if they have somewhere else to go that’s safe. She said many of the people she’s talked to understand it’s not their park but tell her they have nowhere else they can return to.

Jordan said outreach workers are there to be supportive and don’t want to lose trust with the people they’re trying to serve by telling them they have to leave the parks.

Many of those living in the park fear a repeat of when Salem police cleared an encampment in front of The ARCHES Project in Dec. 2019 after the council approved a public camping ban, clearing out tents and other structures.

The predominant emotion Jordan has seen is panic.

“A lot of tears, a lot of crying,” she said.

Jordan recalled one woman who explained the parks were the only stability she’s had as she and her partner have been trying to get into a drug rehab program. Currently, Bridgeway Recovery Services, the only area provider which takes the Oregon Health Plan, isn’t doing inpatient stays because of Covid.

Jordan said her efforts over the past months connecting people living on the streets with services like healthcare or food benefits will be diminished as people scatter.

“It’s going to set us back huge,” she said. 

Related coverage: As hundreds will be kicked out of city parks, a question remains: where will they go?

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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