Flooding at Cascades Gateway Park on Dec. 21. (Courtesy/ Jean Hendron)

Salem wants to phase out an emergency declaration that allowed homeless people to camp at two city parks, but first face a daunting task of finding a place for more than 1,000 people.

The city’s homeless liaison Gretchen Bennett presented a plan to Salem City Council Monday night that hinges on finding a location for a managed camp, new shelter sites and additional shelter beds coming online later this year.

By June, the plan calls for end to an emergency declaration started in March that allowed camping in certain areas of Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks. Camping was allowed to limit the spread of Covid among Salem’s unsheltered population by allowing them space to physically distance.

Bennett said the plan is to incrementally reduce the number of people in the parks, as opposed to a hard stop. Homeless service organizations estimate there are about 200 to 300 people in each park.

“All of us see that camping at the parks remains unsustainable,” Bennett said.

Recent rains have flooded many campers out of the lower-lying areas of Cascades Gateway and Wallace Marine parks and nearby residents have become increasingly frustrated by accumulating trash and other problems brought on by camping.

City Manager Steve Powers told councilors there are efforts underway to aggressively move campers out of the parks and into more appropriate shelter options. That includes offering people existing shelter beds and efforts to expand a hotel program and a car camping program.

A report by city staff says that on any given night there are five to 35 open shelter beds in Salem. It said after shelters and safe vehicle parking programs fill, more than 1,000 people are still outside.

The report states, “Campers report they would return to downtown sidewalks, awnings or other parks if the camping restriction was reinstated prior to the development of alternatives.”

Bennett has spent months looking for alternate camping locations, but many turn out to be unsuitable because they’re in a floodplain, the property owner isn’t interested, or the parcel is being used for another purpose.

But she’s hopeful that by February there will be an organized campground run by a homeless service agency. The city is working with Church at the Park and Family Promise to site a location.

“I’m hoping we can be actively working with each resident, each camper on addressing needs,” Bennett said.

In May, Union Gospel Mission is expected to open its new shelter near downtown and bring more than 100 new beds online.

But many of the people living in the further reaches of the parks aren’t going to seek shelter there, said Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency.

That’s because many have health and mental health conditions that keep them from wanting to seek a shelter bed. 

Jones said the city’s plan shows it’s not going to be possible to end camping in the parks anytime soon.

“There’s not an enforcement solution to this problem. All they’re going to be able to do is move folks from one part of town to the other,” Jones said.

During Monday’s meeting, councilor Jim Lewis said it was “quite possible we’re going to be in the same situation six months from now that we’re in right now and the city council may indeed need to extend the emergency.”

Bennett said the city can’t force people into shelter or other programs.

“There are times when what people might need is treatment or mental health services. That’s often not a choice that a family or a government can make, that’s not something we can compel,” she said.

Jones said many people who live in the parks want to be free and not be dictated by government or anyone else where they choose to exist.

“I hope everybody understands people’s right to survive here is more important than everyone’s right not to be inconvenienced by these people suffering,” Jones said. “We can’t just turn our back on the suffering that’s taking place out there because it is immense.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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