Salem city officials have been grappling with how to deal with the persistent, visible homeless problem downtown.
They scrapped ideas to locate a shelter in a residential neighborhood, couldn’t find a suitable location for a temporary, low -barrier shelter and most recently flirted with the idea of partially repealing the city’s camping ban.
On Monday night, Salem city councilors discussed modifying the ban, but instead chose to revisit a controversial ordinance that would ban lying or sitting on sidewalks during the day.
The split vote came after another meeting punctuated by lengthy public testimony. Many councilors expressed concerns about logistical and enforcement issues with repealing the camping ban except in downtown, city parks and residential areas.
“We have been kicking the can back and forth across the street because we’ve been trying to do what’s right." Councilor Chris Hoy said. “My concern with this motion is I don’t think it’s manageable.”
In November, the council chose to remove the controversial ‘sit lie’ aspect of the camping ban. Such a restriction is intended to prevent people from sitting or lying in public spaces from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
On Monday, City Attorney Dan Atchison addressed concerns over the constitutionality of a sit-lie ordinance.
The city of Portland tried to enact a sit-lie law in 2009 that was ultimately deemed unconstitutional. And, in 2018, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the city of Boise couldn't ban sleeping on sidewalks without criminalizing homelessness.
Atchison said the current camping ordinance is not a criminal penalty and isn’t affected by the federal court decision.
“As far as sit-lie, there is some language in there that talks about having a place for them to go essentially,” he said. “It remains to be seen how the court would look at a daytime (ban).”
The place for homeless residents to go is a sticking point, as many say shelter beds are going unused because some campers prefer to stay on the streets.
But Salem Housing Authority Administrator Nicole Utz painted a different picture Monday night.
She said the city surveyed five shelters and only two have available space. She said Safe Sleep had one bed available and Simonka Place had four, all of which are on top bunks which can be inaccessible for people with mobility issues.
“We’re finding that it is quickly getting to capacity now," Utz said.
Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, told councilors at a Jan. 21 meeting that his advice would be to repeal the camping ban in industrial parts of town, a statement that set the course for Monday night’s discussion.
Jones also spoke at Monday’s meeting and told councilors that if they offered space for people to camp it wouldn't lead to a mass exodus from downtown.
“If the goal is to move people from downtown, I don’t think necessarily that this is going to accomplish those goals," Jones said.
Mayor Chuck Bennett said he didn’t see any solutions other than sit-lie.
“Particularly when I found out that the solutions that we talk about still keep our downtown streets in the current condition,” Bennett said.
Councilor Cara Kaser urged councilors not decide Monday.
“I think we need to pause and give this time outside of the council meeting,” Kaser said. “I feel like we’re being very reactionary.”
Councilors Brad Nanke, Jim Lewis, Bennett, Hoy and Tom Andersen voted to consider a sit-lie restriction at the council meeting on Feb. 24
Kaser, Jackie Leung, Matt Ausec and Vanessa Nordkyke voted against it.
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