Indoor showers, more space for families coming to Salem micro shelter site

On a cold November morning, families signed up to take a shower in an outdoor tent in a northeast Salem parking lot.

The converted Army-issue tent houses private, heated shower pods, but it’s far from ideal for the roughly 100 people staying at the micro shelter site run by Church at the Park. Built to last six months, the tent has been in use for two years. 

“We’re thankful this held up for this long,” said DJ Vincent, founding pastor of Church at the Park.

In December, Vincent plans to open an expansion of the site that will include indoor showers and bathrooms, as well as space for 32 more people to sleep.

It’s a badly-needed expansion of the shelter site, which operates on space leased from Catholic Community Services and had a waitlist of 132 families as of Nov. 1.

The nonprofit got a $663,000 grant from the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Alliance’s share of state sheltering money to refurbish the building, making more space to shelter homeless families in Salem.

The land used to be a pallet refurbishing business “which had nothing to do with our mission and ministry except they paid rent,” said Josh Graves, CEO of Catholic Community Services. The nonprofit leased the space to Church at the Park two years ago, which set up micro shelters in the parking lot. 

The old warehouse couldn’t be used for shelter because its power and fire suppression systems weren’t up to code, Graves said.

Vincent said they want to open the new beds in time for the worst of winter weather.

“With the weather coming, we always see need increase,” Vincent said.

More space will allow Church at the Park to host bigger families without splitting them up into multiple pods. Some families now have four people sleeping in a single 72-square-foot pod shelter.

“It is not the ideal,” Vincent said.

The expansion comes amid a historic high in shelter beds available in Salem. But the future of the micro shelter site remains uncertain. 

The micro shelters were originally set up and run using city money, part of Salem’s share of federal Covid relief. That money is set to expire in June 2024, meaning the shelters will close unless Church at the Park finds state or other money to run them.

Vincent said the organizations running emergency shelters are waiting on news of additional state money which has been set aside to fund sheltering, but has yet to be allocated to specific projects.

Graves said Catholic Community Services is happy to support micro shelters, and that more organizations in Salem need to step up and volunteer locations for shelters to operate.

“We need to support Church at the Park’s expansion if we want to see people not sleeping under the Rite-Aid awning, if we want to see people not sleeping along I-5, as a community we need to come together,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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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.