As homeless micro-shelter camp falters due to flooding, Salem looks for alternate locations

A row of pallet shelters under construction on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A floodplain not marked on city flood maps killed plans for a managed homeless camp in west Salem – but city leaders said they’re at work evaluating a new site.

The camp, which drew substantial opposition from nearby residents, would have hosted micro-shelters at 2400 Wallace Rd.

The Salem City Council on Sept. 27 approved the camp, intended to house up to 60 people, prioritizing those 55 and older and women. It would have been run by Church at the Park, a Salem homeless services provider which operates two other managed camps in the city.

In public comment documents, west Salem resident Brian Azule emailed photos of the grassy area flooded in the winter.

“This lot is prone for flooding and becoming a marshland during the rainy season. There is usually 3 to 8 inches of standing water in that lot and the surrounding grass areas,” he wrote to councilors on Sept. 26

That prompted a further review of the property by the city.

“Sure enough, it’s substantially a wetland,” said Gretchen Bennett, the city’s homelessness liaison.

The city announced on Tuesday that the camp would not move forward.

“To me it’s an example of, we do want to learn from the community. It’s a good example of how we have that opportunity to listen and learn,” she said.

Bennett said she wouldn’t have predicted that she would need to question the flood maps.

Now, when considering a micro-shelter site, she plans to dispatch an employee who can take an initial look at a property.

The micro-shelters, which are often 64-square-foot, two-bed structures, are intended to get people off the street and stabilized before they move into permanent housing.

Initially, the city had floated the idea of using the nearby city-owned parking lot on Wallace Road to put the shelters. But Bennett said she found out the state Department of Transportation owned a substantial portion of it and there wasn’t enough room on the city lot to put the shelters.

Because it’s a transportation right of way, they can’t allow access for non-transportation related projects, she said.

If the city wanted to buy the property, ODOT would have to declare it surplus and sell at fair market value, which would be expensive.

To even to get that point, it’s an 18-to-24-month process for ODOT to consider if they’d want to sell.

The micro-shelter camp proposal drew hundreds to an angry meeting at Salemtowne, with residents upset about the lack of communication with nearby residents.

With that project off the table, the city continues to search for other locations.

A proposed site at Southeast 13th Street and Rural Avenue was discussed, but the owner wasn’t willing to sell, Bennett said.

She said she got eight proposals from the Salemtowne meeting. Some were areas they had looked at but determined not to be feasible and others she’s still looking into.

“We remain interested in hearing ideas,” she said.

The city is aiming to have a micro-shelter camp in each ward to make their distribution more equitable. Northeast Salem currently has the only microshelters.

Now, Bennett is turning her attention to a city-owned parking lot. In June, the city set aside $540,000 in federal relief funds to turn the parking lot across the street from City Hall in the 500 block of Commercial Street S.E. into safe parking for RVs and other vehicles. That didn’t move forward because of issues with the sloping of the lot.

However, Bennett said she recently found a company that makes shelters that can accommodate the slope.

DJ Vincent, who runs Church at the Park, said they’re building a site plan for parking lot project.

“We’re concerned about sheltering people especially through the winter season,” Vincent said.

“We’re discouraged that the (west Salem) site isn’t going to be open to shelter people this winter, but we remain committed to the effectiveness and the vision of the micro-shelter communities across the city.”

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

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