County commissioners consider spending $3 million on navigation center

The future site of Salem’s navigation center, now a vacant building located at 1185 22nd St. S.E. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

The Marion County Board of Commissioners is considering dedicating up to $3 million in federal money to a navigation center that would help homeless people move into permanent housing.

Commissioners met Monday with Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett and other city officials and expressed interest in providing the funds, according to Commissioner Danielle Bethell.

Bethell said city officials plan on opening the navigation center in fall 2022.

Commissioner Danielle Bethell said city and county officials have met four times over the past year to discuss plans for the navigation center.

“This is just an opportunity to say here is a discussion that we have been invested in for some time, and we’re looking at applying a substantial dollar amount to the effort,” Bethell said.

After city and county officials floated the navigation center for years, funding allocated last year from the Oregon Legislature and the city’s share of federal Covid relief pushed the project ahead.

The state legislature allocated $5 million in May 2021 to fund two years of the center’s operations. Salem used federal Covid relief money to buy a vacant building at 1185 22nd St. S .E. for $2.75 million, and pay for property taxes and site improvements. The building has served as a warming center this winter.

Millions more are still needed to cover additional costs that increased due to fire and safety standards for sheltering, rising construction costs and supply chain issues, according to a city staff report provided to the Salem City Council in December.

Bethell said city officials asked the county to invest in the remodeling of the building. Commissioners haven’t announced a date when they will vote on providing the funding.

With $3 million from the county, the project would still need another $1.9 million to do a full building remodel.

City councilors said seeking more state money for the center is a top priority for the 2022 Legislative session, which begins next week.

The building, which used to house a state Department of Human Services office, needs heating, ventilation, air conditioning, a fire sprinkler system, an office remodel, bathrooms, showers and an expanded kitchen, Bethell said.

When opened, the facility is intended to operate as a short-term shelter for 35 to 40 people where they can stabilize for two to four months until they transition into housing. It would be open 24 hours a day to help people with other more immediate, basic needs like toilets or potable water.

Bethell said the county is also committing to have behavioral health navigators on site, as well as staff from the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, which connects people who commit low-level crimes with social services rather than the criminal justice system.

“(City officials) have worked diligently within the community to just create a sustainable plan,” Bethell said.

She said they struggled with being funded in two-year increments, as the legislature allocates money biannually, and have been concerned about committing long-term investment “to a project that really does need substantial operational support.”

“We are committed to making this work because it is a solution that we believe is necessary to really get lift in moving forward to prevent homelessness all around,” Bethell said.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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