Tents line the boulevard next to The ARCHES Project in downtown, where homeless residents have congregated before the city's camping ban. SOURCE: (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

House Speaker Tina Kotek wants to ease the state’s housing and homelessness problems with $120 million to enforce fair housing laws, build affordable housing and keep others housed. 

Her package of legislation in the 2020 Legislature could significantly help with Salem’s persistent problem with homelessness as the city has struggled to increase shelter capacity and connect individuals to services.

Kotek explained her initiatives in a briefing earlier this week with reporters, including a sheet listing the bills.

At the top was House Bill 4001, which would provide $40 million for communities coping with homeless populations. That includes money for Eugene and Salem to set up navigation centers, places that can direct homeless people to services. 

It would also help cities bypass zoning restrictions to build shelters. Kotek said that the money could be used for needed low-barrier shelters, which don’t require identification or sobriety. But Kotek said that communities that have already done some legwork will be better situated to get money from the state.

“My goal is to make sure communities who are ready to go and can put more shelter beds out there by the fall are going to go to the top of the list,” said Kotek. “I think Salem is trying to get there because they've been trying to site a shelter now for several months. So I would think that they'd have a good shot at the money.”

Salem has struggled with homelessness in recent years. In response to growing homeless encampments, the Salem City Council passed an ordinance last year restricting camping in public places. But the city has struggled to add shelter capacity.

“We’re ready,” said Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett of the funding for the navigation center and to set-up a shelter. “If both went through it would really solve the broader homeless problem in Salem.”

Bennett said that the city has identified a vacant building owned by the state Department of Human Services on Southeast Mission Street to use as a shelter. But he said that the city doesn’t have the $3.5 million to buy it. He said the city would also need another $3 million to $3.5 million to fund such a shelter for two years.

According to a city staff report, converting the 18,300-square-foot building into a permanent shelter would provide space for up 100 individuals. To serve more than 75 people, the city would need to get from itself a conditional use permit, a process that can take months. It would also require a zone change that could take up to 90 days.

Salem has already declared an emergency allowing it to sidestep zoning barriers to more shelter space. Kotek’s legislation similarly declares an emergency, which Bennett said would bolster Salem’s declaration.

Kotek cited a study released last year that concluded that the state needs about 6,000 shelter beds. The study also called for “navigation centers” in Eugene and Salem that would serve as 24-hour locations where homeless people could be connected to social services.

“Having a 24-7 place where folks can go get connected to services is pretty critical for large population areas,” said Kotek.

Bennett said that the city is negotiating for a property for its navigation center. He said he couldn’t reveal details but said it will be near the ARCHES Project on Northeast Commercial Street. He said the city would use urban renewal money to buy the property but would need financial help from the state to operate it..

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.