COLUMN: Early-day homeless shelter an invention of Salem’s police chief

Hotel de Minto was sometimes referred to in jest as the name of Salem’s city jail, but it was actually a place where transients stayed who had nowhere else to go. The earliest mentions of the hotel can be found in the Oregon Statesman beginning in 1885.

The Minto name is associated with three of Salem’s early city law enforcement officers who were descendants of the Oregon pioneer John Minto. His family farmed in the park named for him – Minto-Brown Island Park. He had two sons in law enforcement in the late 1800s. John Wilson Minto was a marshal from 1877 to 1881.

His brother Harry P. Minto was Salem’s marshal from 1891 to 1895 and then he was elected Marion County sheriff in 1908, serving through 1913. In 1914, he was appointed as superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary.

The third Minto was John’s grandchild, Frank A. Minto, who served as police chief from 1922-1949. Local newspaper accounts reported that Hotel de Minto was open and managed by Salem’s police from the late 1800s and through 1925.

However, during the Great Depression, then-Police Chief Frank Minto opened the Hotel de Minto as a shelter and a place to get a hot meal ­– serving a need in the community as it had historically.  Initially in the winter of 1929, the shelter was in the basement underneath the jail of the 1893 Salem City Hall, then located on High and Chemeketa Streets.

Salem’s businessmen and residents supported Minto’s efforts because it reduced the number of homeless on the street as well as reducing burglaries downtown by those who needed food or clothing. Men who stayed at the hotel were required to work for food clothing, bunks and tobacco.

With the passage of the Federal Emergency Relief Act in 1933, funding for the hotel was obtained by the Federal Transient Relief Administration and Hotel de Minto moved to the third floor of city hall. On December 16, 1934, the Oregon Statesman publicized an open house.

“If citizens are interested in seeing where the transient man stays and how he is treated when he comes to town, they may attend the open house at Hotel de Minto, federal transient relief station on the third floor of City Hall,” the newspaper reported.

The other local paper, the Capital Journal, reported in January 1936 that 1,500 men were given shelter and about 3,400 meals served at Hotel de Minto since early the previous December. An average of 30 to 40 men stayed at the shelter each evening.

With the establishment of the Works Progress Administration in 1935, funding for transient relief was reduced until it was eliminated by 1938, and instead focus on job creation began.

Salem United War Chest, which raised money for Salem charities, decided in 1942 to redirect funding from Hotel de Minto to a fund to assist men in the armed services. The shelter was closed and the hotel space became the city council chambers in 1948. The work of Frank Minto received national recognition for creating a place to take care of the transient population during the hard times of the Depression.

At its meeting on Jan. 17, the present-day Salem City Council discussed House Bill 3115, passed by the Oregon Legislature in 2021 and effective in July of this year. This legislation requires cities like Salem to ensure that restrictions on public spaces as they apply to the unsheltered be reasonable as to time place and manner.

Community partners estimate well over 1,000 people currently live outdoors in Salem. While over 300 shelter beds have been added in the past two years, Salem experiences a higher-than-average rate of chronic homelessness.

To help someone in need – please call the Crisis & Information Hotline at Northwest Human Services at 1800 560-5535. For more information about the city’s efforts to address homelessness please visit this website.

Men relax in 1939 in what was called Salem’s Hotel de Minto, using space on the top floor of city hall. It housed young men who worked at odd jobs in exchange for food and shelter. (Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections/Ben Maxwell)
Men grab a meal in 1938 in what was called Salem’s Hotel de Minto, using space on the top floor of city hall. Meals were cooked at the location, created as a shelter by the police chief. (Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections/Ben Maxwell)

This column is part of a regular feature from Salem Reporter to highlight local history in collaboration with area historians and historical organizations. Kimberli Fitzgerald, Salem’s historic preservation officer, writes about local history and city historic preservation efforts.

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Kimberli Fitzgerald is the city of Salem's archeologist and historic preservation officer. She is a regular contributor to Salem Reporter's local history column.