City News

“A fighting chance”: Salem on track to have 1,000 shelter beds this year

Salem has tripled the number of emergency homeless shelter beds over the past five years, meaning hundreds more people each night are able to sleep with protection from the elements and begin the process of finding more stable housing, drug treatment or other help to get them off the streets.

But progress is challenged by the growing unaffordability of housing, which forces more people into shelters while making it difficult to move people into their own home. A worsening drug crisis also makes it harder for some to get off the streets, said Jimmy Jones, director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which operates about one-quarter of Salem’s emergency shelter beds.

A Salem Reporter analysis of emergency shelters identified 890 emergency shelter beds operating in Salem and Keizer. Of those, nearly 600 have been added since 2018.

Roughly 290 of those beds could close if the city can’t identify a funding source once federal Covid relief money runs out in 2024 and 2025.

Most of the city’s shelter beds are at low-barrier shelters where sobriety is not a requirement, though substance use on-site is typically not allowed.

With the exception of Union Gospel Mission men’s mission, which normally has 50 to 75 beds available, providers report their shelters are typically full and often have lengthy waitlists. Some beds at the mission are set aside for a New Life program, a Christian drug and alcohol recovery program.

Gretchen Bennett, the city’s homelessness liaison, said the expansion has made her job easier as she’s more often able to find places to refer people who need substance abuse treatment or women who have suffered abuse. 

“I didn’t have any of that a few years ago and it was awful,” said Bennett.

It’s a precarious moment in Salem’s fight against homelessness. Some newer shelters, like the city-funded Navigation Center, are still expanding to house their full capacity. 

Jones said Salem has yet to see the full impact of new shelters and affordable housing projects that have opened in recent months. More are scheduled to come online by the end of the year.

“You feel like for the first time in your life, you have the tools to have a fighting chance, but you don’t really have the tools until they’re fully deployed and we’re not quite there yet. It’s like having a car you can’t drive,” he said.

Many shelters don’t have funding sources identified past 2024 or 2025, an issue a city council-imposed payroll tax seeks to address with about $8 million annually in funds for the Navigation Center and micro shelters. The tax, which will mostly go to police and firefighters, is headed to voters in November for a referendum after receiving significant public pushback.

“I think the public is frustrated right now with what they see around town,” Jones said, referencing people passed out on sidewalks or unmanaged camps generating garbage.

But, he said, those visible problems would be significantly worse without options like micro shelters.

“Imagine for one moment if that Navigation Center wasn’t there. Imagine if Church at the Park wasn’t there,” he said.

If Salem doesn’t find a way to secure long-term operation of those shelters, “the community’s going to be in a pretty uncomfortable place,” Jones said.

The significant growth in shelter beds has come as city officials have shifted from seeing homelessness as a problem outside their jurisdiction to a key issue for the city to tackle. Tens of millions in local, state, federal and private money have gone toward building or renovating shelters and providing ongoing services.

Since 2017, Salemites have identified homelessness as a top priority for the city.

Mayor Chris Hoy said when he first joined city council in 2017, the city was not doing anything to respond to homelessness. While running for mayor in 2022 and since taking office, he’s repeatedly touted the city’s progress in expanding available shelters and said many Salemites aren’t aware of the progress the city has made.

In the winter of 2019, city councilors put $213,000 toward operating costs for temporary warming shelters operating in local churches on freezing nights.

That winter, Jones recalled a large homeless camp around the Rite Aid in downtown Salem. He said despite public discontent about visible homeless camps, the pre-pandemic situation was worse.

“It does not feel as bleak in the sense that when people are sick and dying outside, we don’t have options. We have options,” Jones said.

Estimating the size of the region’s homeless population is difficult because people move, camp in areas that may be difficult to find and cycle in and out of homelessness. A 2022 report from the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance found 4,300 Marion and Polk county residents sought a homelessness assessment to get help from a local service provider in 2021-22.

The most recent homeless count from January 2023 in Marion and Polk counties found 805 people staying in shelters and 878 people unsheltered. The annual January count is notorious for undercounting homelessness because it’s a snapshot of just a few days.

Bennett said while the progress in expanding shelter is encouraging, there remain people whose needs are poorly served by existing shelters.

Of Salem’s emergency shelter beds, about 300 are for adult men, 100 for adult women, 235 open to adults regardless of gender, 10 for teens and 160 for families.

Another 60 beds are reserved for people fleeing domestic violence, and 36 for veterans.

About 150 more shelter beds will be available in the coming months as three new projects are slated to open: the ARCHES Lodge, an 84-bed adult shelter in a former motel operated by Community Action; a 40-bed young adult micro-shelter site operated by Church at the Park; and an expansion of SafeSleep United that will add 33 beds to the women’s shelter.

Despite the growth, there are still no shelters well-suited to people who need significant medical attention or help with disabilities, Bennett said, particularly those who can’t manage daily living tasks like using the bathroom or getting out of bed by themselves.

Aside from Church at the Park-operated micro shelters, which have a lengthy waitlist, no shelter allows adult couples to remain together and share a bed or sleeping space, Bennett said. The city Navigation Center takes men and women, but splits adults into sleeping areas by gender.

Space for families who want to stay together is limited, she said.

And the people most in need of help – those with persistent, serious mental illnesses or struggling with addiction – often don’t do well in a shelter environment.

Jones said the rise of fentanyl and tranquilizers have contributed to the challenge, worsening addictions for some homeless people. A small number of people living on the streets won’t be interested in a shelter environment, he said, because of past poor experiences with high-barrier shelters, or because they’re unwilling or unable to follow rules.

But the larger issue remains a rise in factors pushing people into homelessness — increasing housing costs, more seniors who can’t make ends meet on fixed incomes, and people with worsening medical problems.

“There’s just so many more people coming into the system than ever before. Getting them out is getting harder,” Jones said. His agency’s ARCHES Inn project has seen successes getting people into housing, but whenever they move someone into a better place, “there’s always four or five people in line behind them.”

Bennett said she’d like better data on how quickly people become homeless in Salem to give her a sense of how much that’s driving the need for more shelter.

“I continue to hear about eviction rates, I continue to hear about rents rising and I don’t know that wages and pay is keeping up with the cost of rising inflation and rising housing costs,” Bennett said. “We can succeed with people coming (out of) the shelter beds, but then how many people are coming in?”

Multiple women’s shelters in Salem reported last fall clients were staying significantly longer because of a lack of affordable housing to send people to.

Bennett said she sees hope in new projects like the Navigation Center, but the need still outstrips available services.

“I’ll bet you we could use three of them,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241. Contact reporter Natalie Sharp: [email protected] or 503-522-6493.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.

Natalie Sharp is an Oregon State University student working as a reporter for Salem Reporter in summer 2023. She is part of the Snowden internship program at the University of Oregon's School of Communication and Journalism.