Carl Rhymes poses for a photo at the Oregon State Fairgrounds Pavilion where a managed homeless camp closed March 31. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

For the last two months, dozens of unsheltered people have had a safe place to sleep and store their belongings at the Oregon State Fairgrounds Pavilion.

On Wednesday morning, the fairground’s soon-to-be-former residents pushed carts of their belonging into truck beds or shuttles that would take them to their new living situation, with many going back to one of two city parks where camping has been allowed during the pandemic.

DJ Vincent, pastor at Church at the Park and deputy director of the nonprofit Salem Leadership Foundation, said his organization viewed the fairgrounds “as a pilot project for using tents in an indoor setting, like a pavilion or even a warehouse.”

The agreement between the fairgrounds and Church at the Park allowed up to 100 houseless people to stay there until the fairgrounds started hosting events again as Covid restrictions have loosened and more people get vaccinated against the virus.

It was intended to establish “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,” according to one of Church at the Park’s written commitments.

“In almost every area it exceeded our expectations,” Vincent said.

He said six households secured permanent housing and another 10 transitioned to more stable shelter. Vincent said 40 households got connected to resources like the Oregon Health Plan, nutritional assistance and other needs.

Vincent said the fairgrounds provided an environment where housing assistants could find people and work them through the process of finding housing.  

One of the difficulties homeless social service agencies face are finding the clients they serve, so the fairgrounds provided a consistent place to get connected for those people, he said.

But the fairground's closure created uncertainty for others who will move back into Wallace Marine Park or Cascades Gateway Park.

Carl Rhymes said he planned to go to Cascades Gateway Park with his fiancé and their chihuahua. He was hoping to get his stimulus check money so he could buy an RV.

In the past year, Rhymes and his fiancé lived in Wallace Marine Park, in a motel and finally at the pavilion.

“It’s been heaven,” Rhymes said of the fairgrounds shelter.

He said he didn’t have to worry about leaving his belongings behind because the shelter provided safekeeping for them.

Rhymes said he’s on a list to get shelter at a new site opening on Portland Road that will also be managed by Church at the Park. It will have 40 beds in “pallet” structures, which are easy to install and have room for two beds, and space for eight cars.

That site is expected to open on April 19 and prioritize women.

Joshawa Wiley, another former resident of the pavilion, planned to camp in Cascades Gateway Park for a few days but was unsure where he would go after that Wednesday.

The fairgrounds are once again scheduling events, with the Great Junk Fest planned for the second week in April.

In the last year, the fairgrounds haven’t hosted any events but instead have served as a disaster center of sorts. It hosted a hospital with the Oregon National Guard, stored masks for students and farmers, became an evacuation center following the September wildfires, became a Covid testing site and most recently has served as a vaccination site. 

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

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