City News

Salem City Council approves nearly $500k to clean up homeless camps

City workers pick up trash during the eviction of a homeless encampment at Marion Square Park on Thursday, Mar. 3, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter) (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

Salem is getting a new team to clean up homeless camps.  

The Salem City Council on Monday unanimously approved using $475,000 of a state sheltering grant to fund a city-staffed team to clean up homeless camps. The money would also provide a grant to a nonprofit to hire and supervise people who have experienced homelessness to “engage with individuals in unmanaged camps” and clean up litter.   

The money would fund three months of operations for seven city employees, the nonprofit program and one-time equipment purchases. About $51,000 of that amount would go toward the nonprofit work.  

Staff positions include two sworn Salem police officers, four people to do clean-ups and one person to coordinate.   

The team was suggested as a way to more quickly respond to trash at homeless camps before it begins proliferating.  

Gretchen Bennett, the city’s homelessness liaison, said the hope is that the team would provide a “quicker, nimbler, supportive response” to homeless camps. 

The city doesn’t currently have dedicated staff for this purpose and pulls employees from several departments when they sweep homeless camps. 

Councilor Trevor Phillips said the city was limited to cleanups once a week because of the need to pull staff from other duties.  

“I see this as necessary. It’s unfortunate. We live in, at times, a broken reality, but we’re all doing our best to put the pieces back together and I think this is part of that. This is what we need right now,” he said. 

Councilor Vanessa Nordyke said she had concerns about the program, namely the presence of police officers at cleanups, but was willing to take a chance on it. She said a police presence can often escalate situations when people are distrustful of police, even if an officer isn’t doing anything.  

She said the city should “step back and reassess if needed it if it’s not working.” 

Police Chief Trevor Womack told councilors that Salem police were already present at cleanups and would continue to be in the future.  

He said there’s a group of police officers that have been assigned to do sweeps for the past couple of years.  

“They already have the training, they’re well skilled and adept at this type of work,” he said.  

Womack said Salem police’s goal at camp cleanups was not to make arrests.  

“We come at this not from any intention to arrest anyone, it’s all about safety it’s all about connecting folks to services,” he said.  

On March 28, city staff will give the council a budget for what the team would cost next fiscal year, which starts in July. The money the council allocated Monday is part of a $10.5 million grant from the Oregon Legislature in 2021 for sheltering. 

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

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