A tractor sits inside of the Forster Livestock Pavilion at the state fairgrounds in Salem on May 12, 2020. The 2020 Oregon State Fair was recently canceled due to COVID-19. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

In a little over a week, 100 people sleeping on the street or in city parks will have a new place to pitch a tent.

The city of Salem is entering an agreement with the Oregon State Fairgrounds to use the interior pavilion and an adjacent parking lot of a managed camp that will be run by nonprofit Church at the Park. Camping is expected to begin by Feb. 1.

The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency is spending $250,000 to run the camp, with the city footing the bulk of the expense to the tune of $352,000, according to Jimmy Jones, the agency’s executive director.

Jones said a contract still needs to be signed.

The agency is contracting the camp operations to Church at the Park, a homeless service provider that is currently running a shelter on State Street, which will manage a 24/7 operation at the fairground until at least mid-March.

The news comes as Gretchen Bennett, the city’s homelessness liaison, presented a plan to end camping at two city parks earlier this month. The city allowed those camps as an emergency measure when the Covid pandemic began last spring, hoping to avoid homeless residents spreading the virus in crowded shelters.

On Jan. 11 Bennett said the plan was 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.

DJ Vincent, pastor at Church at the Park and deputy director of the nonprofit Salem Leadership Foundation, said he’s hired 35 new employees to run the operation at the fairgrounds.  

He said there will be five staff onsite at all times.

Within the pavilion, he said they’ve gridded out 15x15 tent spaces for privacy and sleeping.

One of Church at the Park’s written commitments for the camp is the “establishment of an open-air place where people living on the streets can have their basic needs met in a stable, sanitary environment, until they are able to access another form of housing more in keeping with said resident’s personal goals and aspirations.”

Vincent said they’ll provide bedding and warming materials as needed.

People camping at the fairgrounds can use the existing showers and bathrooms, with a ten-minute showering limit.

According to a Church at the Park participant agreement, all drug-related items must be kept out of sight. The camp will be low barrier, meaning there’s no sobriety requirement and pets are allowed.

“Using, selling, or trading substances on our property will result in a service restriction,” the agreement reads.

Bennett said people are free to leave the camp, but general access to the fairgrounds isn’t allowed.

Kim Grewe-Powell, interim CEO of the Oregon State Fairgrounds, said the ongoing Covid vaccine clinic is in a completely different part of the fairgrounds.

“It’s fenced off so we don’t feel like there will be any interaction,” she said.

Grewe-Powell said there hasn’t been business since March because of Covid restrictions which is why the fairgrounds are allowing a shelter now.

“In the past it hasn’t been because we’re very busy,” she said. “Because of Covid, that’s why we have changed our thought on that.”

Vincent said Church at the Park is authorized to run the camp into March, with the option to extend the contract. The city has promised to vacate the property with a one-week notice.

He said he’ll feel even better when there’s a managed camp that can stay open indefinitely.

“Beautiful things are possible when the city, the state, and the local community partner together,” Vincent said. 

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

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