Delivering the annual state of the city address on Wednesday, Mayor Chuck Bennett focused on one major issue facing Salem: homelessness.
“Overriding every other issue was homelessness and its impact on our city,” Bennett said, citing a citywide survey last year that found homelessness was at the top of Salem residents' minds.
He urged the Salem City Council to pass an ordinance that would ban sitting or lying on public sidewalks from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Councilors will be discussing the issue at their next meeting on Feb. 24.
“It is untenable that after decades of work and tens of millions of dollars to preserve our historic downtown as the vibrant commercial and residential center of this region it is being jeopardized by the current unnecessary use of our public sidewalks for permanent, 24/7 unsheltered living space with all of the attendant health and safety problems and costs. There are no more excuses for letting this situation continue,” he told a crowd at the Salem Convention Center.
About 8,000 people currently receive affordable or subsidized housing through the Salem Housing Authority. Bennett cited the city’s Housing Rental Assistance Program – currently housing 269 people considered the hardest to house – as the largest dispersed housing-first program in the state.
“These are folks who have been unsheltered for at least 10 years and dealing with combinations of health, addiction, trauma, criminal convictions and unemployment,” he said.
The city is currently seeking $7 million from the legislature for additional shelter spaces and to open a navigation center, which helps direct homeless people to services.
Bennett said the city’s current and future housing options “remove any barrier or excuse for anyone to claim that camping on our community’s sidewalks represents a needed choice or situation.”
The second-term mayor talked about efforts to update the city’s comprehensive plan for the first time in 40 years. It helps long-range planning for development in Salem’s urban area.
He said the planning process included more than 75 community events, meetings and gatherings, the outcome of which will come out in March.
“I can’t tell you how important this process is to the long-term livability of this community on all levels. Many of the successes and failures we face today in growth and its impacts are the result of long-term planning decisions made in the 1970’s,” Bennett said.
The city is finalizing plans for the Salem Airport Business Plan, which will be presented to the council soon, Bennett said.
He also spent a portion of his speech highlighting growth in the city.
He said there was $600 million worth of construction completed or underway last year and the city issued hundreds of permits for both apartments and single family and duplex units.
Bennett said a new, seven-story downtown hotel across from the Salem Convention Center will begin construction this summer.
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