City News

Houseless people in Salem report experiencing discrimination daily

Survey results showing forms of discrimination Salem residents reported experiencing personally, from the city’s 2021 survey.

People without housing experience discrimination at a higher rate and frequency than any other group of Salem residents according to a survey by Salem’s Human Rights Commission and Western Oregon University released Tuesday.

One unhoused respondent said they experience discrimination daily, with drivers revving car engines at them and people yelling “get a job!”

People experiencing homelessness gave the city the lowest rating of all respondents to the survey, with nearly 80% rating the city as “poor” or “failing” with a lot of discrimination.


The survey garnered 831 responses from May 5-21, 2021. It relied on voluntary participation via social media and paper forms handed out to unsheltered people, so it isn’t a representative sample of Salem residents.

But it gives Salem’s Human Rights Commission an idea of the kinds of discrimination people are experiencing in the city, Gretchen Bennett, city staff liaison for the commission, said.

“We can’t fix what we don’t know about. We want to try to understand: ‘What are people experiencing?’ to work toward trying to reduce bias and discrimination in Salem,” she said.

Salem’s Human Rights Commission advises the Salem City Council on human rights issues and hears discrimination complaints from residents. Bennett said the commission receives about one complaint per month.

The survey asked if people had witnessed or heard discrimination or personally experienced it. It also asked how long ago the discrimination occurred, with 60% reporting the discrimination occurred within the past three months.

It also asked people to comment on why they marked a specific rating for the level of discrimination in the city.

The other goal of the survey, conducted for the third time since 2017, was to increase awareness of the Human Rights Commission.  

About a quarter of those who responded rated Salem as “poor: quite a bit of discrimination” and a third said it was “failing: a lot of discrimination.”

This year’s share of survey takers was much larger than in previous years, receiving nearly four times the responses.

About a quarter of the respondents said they were currently experiencing homelessness. Western Oregon University students made a major effort to gather responses from unhoused people through paper surveys, the report noted.

The survey also sought responses from unhoused people last year.

Whites and Latinos are underrepresented in the survey, making up 66% and 12% of responses despite making up 81% and 24% of Salem’s population respectively, according to Census data.

Black people were overrepresented in the survey with 6% of respondents despite making up less than 1% of the population.

Of the paper surveys, 82% said they saw or heard about discrimination related to housing status. In online surveys, nearly half of those who responded said they saw or heard about discrimination based on race.

Many respondents mentioned the prevalence of hate groups and white supremacists in Salem.

One respondent wrote, “White supremacy, overt and covert, is extremely prevalent in Salem. The area is conservative.”

Another said, “We have a Proud Boys problem. I think many come from out of town to bully and intimidate people who don’t look or think as they do.”

Other complaints were that city leaders dismissed and minimized the concerns of Salem citizens.

Bennett, who also works on homelessness issues at the city, said it’s been helpful to have a connection with unhoused people to find out how to communicate more directly with them.

People experiencing homelessness recorded among the lowest awareness of the commission at 12%.

She said people are telling the commission, “Don’t spend time talking with us and try to make us feel better. Fix it. Stop it.”

“That is a much more challenging challenge to have before the Human Rights Commission. How do you stop the actions of bias in a community?” Bennett said. 

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

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!