The loneliness of being homeless in Salem is accentuated by Gov. Kate Brown's "stay home" order, which has emptied the city of many people. These individuals comply with the six-foot spacing recommended for effective social distancing. (Diane Beals/Salem Reporter)

Salem could see a new homeless shelter approved more swiftly under legislation that’ll be considered in a special legislative session this week.

On Wednesday, lawmakers will meet for a special session focused on police accountability and the coronavirus pandemic. Bills haven’t been formally introduced yet. But a draft of legislation includes a provision intended to expedite the siting of homeless shelters by sidestepping many state and local land-use requirements.

Under the legislation, local governments are required to approve applications for emergency homeless shelters that meet certain requirements.

These shelters need to include sleeping and restroom facilities for clients, comply with applicable building codes and be located within an urban growth boundary or area zoned for rural residential use. They would also need to have adequate transportation and “not pose any unreasonable risk to public health or safety.” The legislation’s provisions streamlining the sitting process expire 90 days after it goes into effect.

The legislation revives portions of a bill introduced by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, during the regular legislative session that ended in March. The bill was intended to help cities like Salem, Eugene and Bend address their problem with growing homelessness. The bill was a priority for the city of Salem but it was scuttled after a Republican-led walkout stalled the session. 

“The pandemic has put people experiencing unsheltered homelessness at even greater risk,” said Danny Moran, spokesman for Kotek, in an email. “The scale of the unsheltered homelessness crisis was already great prior to the pandemic, so it is even more essential now to give local communities the chance to build more shelter capacity.”

Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett said he hadn’t seen the draft legislation. But he said that even with a more rapid process in place he expects there to be hearings and opportunities for the public to weigh in before a shelter is approved in Salem.

“We tend to be very open to public comment and public concerns on any land-use change,” he said.

Alison McIntosh policy and communications director for housing advocacy group Neighborhood Partnerships, said in an email that shelters across the state have been blocked all over the state despite the housing crisis. 

“While shelters are not a permanent solution to the problem of homelessness, we must provide more safe places for people to sleep at night, and shelters can play an important role in that safety,” she said. “This flexibility will be critically important as we work to create more safe places for shelter in the year ahead.”

In February, Bennett said that the city has identified a vacant state building on Southeast Mission Street to use for the shelter but needed $3.5 million to buy it.

Kotek intended to attach up to $60 million to her original bill that would have been distributed to local governments and nonprofits to help build the shelters. Since then, the state has seen a drastic drop in revenue following the pandemic.

The revived legislation states that the Oregon Department of Administrative Services shall award grants to local governments to plan, develop and operate “navigation centers,” low-barrier emergency shelters that guide homeless individuals toward services. Salem has been looking into setting up its own navigation center.

However, the legislation doesn’t specify the size of the grants or include a price tag. Moran didn’t immediately respond to a question about how much money would be available. Gov. Kate Brown has stated that she intends to call a second special session later this summer to balance the state’s budget. 

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