City News

On freezing nights, homeless people in Salem can get a ride to shelter

Salem-area homeless people can get a free ride to a place to sleep on cold nights as local emergency shelters add back capacity cut during Covid.

When night temperatures drop to 32 or below, homeless service provider The ARCHES Project will transport people by van to one of two emergency shelters through March 31. The shelters reopened for the season on Nov. 1.

Robert Marshall, emergency manager for ARCHES, said Monday the organization was in urgent need of volunteers to help at the shelter sites. Volunteers check guests in and out of shelters, provide food and beverages in their hospitality areas and assist with keeping the facilities clean. 

More than a dozen volunteers are required each night shelters are open.

Marshall said that need for volunteers has grown as ARCHES has had to consistently shuttle people to emergency shelters earlier in the fall than normal.

“We’re bracing for what could potentially be a very cold winter,” he said.

The shuttle operates until 8 p.m., transporting people from the ARCHES Day Center at 615 Commercial Street N.E. to the two shelters that are part of the program. The organization also offers a ride back to the day center in the morning.

Both shelters had to reduce capacity last year due to Covid, with Salem First Presbytarian accepting 30 people at a time and South Salem Friends taking in 20. That capacity is increasing this year to 75 and 45 people, respectively, as there is less of a need for social distancing.

ARCHES is also partnering with the Salem Area Mass Transit District, also known as Cherriots, to provide free transportation to and from emergency shelters on nights where temperatures are at or below 32 degrees.

Outreach workers on such nights also drive around and look for people who may need a ride to an emergency shelter. They will do so until 7:30 p.m., three and a half hours later than they have clocked out in previous years.

Marshall said this year, ARCHES changed the name of the Salem Warming Network to Emergency Services, committing to opening shelters “during all climate and natural disasters that could have a significant impact on the unsheltered populations in Marion and Polk County,” according to Marshall.

He said the organization decided to expand the program following the summer heat wave. There has also been a recent increase in people camping near waterways and streams, and ARCHES staff will seek to find people who are staying in areas at risk of flooding and transport them to shelter.

One major change to the program this year is that volunteers will now have to go through background checks.

“All of our employees undergo a criminal background check before starting,” Marshall said. “We’re doing that now with all of our volunteers just so we can ensure that safe environment for the population that we’re serving, as well as all the other volunteers that would be serving alongside of us.”

The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which oversees ARCHES, will pay for the background checks. 

Marshall said the change could further complicate the process for previous volunteers who already have to “re-sign up” through the program’s new website.

“I think the initial challenge that we’re going to have is getting folks back into the fold,” he said. “But after that, I don’t anticipate any more challenges.”

Marshall said he couldn’t specify what would be disqualifying on a background check for a volunteer. He said Community Action’s human resources employees would meet with them as issues come up and decide on a case-by-case basis if they were disqualifying.

The city of Salem this year contributed $150,000 for ARCHES’ operation of its warming and inclement weather network. 

Marshall said that funding helps pay for staff salaries to operate the shelters as well as supplies such as food, beverage and hygiene items. It costs on average $6,000 per night to operate each site.

He said ARCHES requires that masks be worn inside the shelters and has kept the robust cleaning procedures it adopted during Covid, such as regularly wiping down touch surfaces.

“We recognize that Covid is still a thing,” he said. “While we’ve reduced some of these measures, we do recognize that as shelter staff, as a social services provider, we play a key role in prevention and the spread of not just Covid but other diseases.”

People interested in volunteering for the program can submit an application on ARCHES’ website.

This story was updated after Marshall clarified that South Salem Friends has a 45-person capacity, not 50 as previously stated.

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

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.