Tents in Wallace Marine Park following the February 2021 ice storm. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

I work at SafeSleep United - a low barrier, year-round women's shelter.

A lady who struggles with mental health lives outside in the area by our shelter. She’s shared about some of the extreme trauma she experienced since she was a very young child, and after earning her trust, she sometimes will talk openly about her multiple personalities. They each have different voices, different makeup, different styles of dressing, and different behaviors. 

We tried very hard, for a long time, to have her stay inside with us. Yet her past haunts her so vividly, so loudly, so profanely. Almost every night, one or more personalities will be present, screaming at the top of her lungs, or crying - full bodied sobbing with yelling mixed in. And almost always extreme profanity, and conversations with people we can’t see. That much chaos and pain in high volume really doesn’t enable other people to sleep well. So we had her leave, yet she’s stayed in the area even though she can no longer come inside the shelter. 

Because there is nowhere for someone in her condition to go, we don’t condone her presence, yet we don’t trespass her either. And because she is a fellow human being, a warrior surviving in spite of her past abuse and trauma, we make sure she isn’t freezing, starving, or dying of thirst. 

Sometimes she will ask for food and say we never feed her. And we can tell her that we may not have fed HER, but we did give dinner to someone else who lives inside her body. Yet if SHE is starving now, we’ll feed her too. 

And her nightly screaming fits? It took a while to learn that this happens TO her; not BY her. 

--

We had a new woman stay with us this week. And last night, the new woman was talking to people I can’t see, and I asked her if she was O.K.? 

She explained that the teeter totter room was tottering. And realizing she must live in alternate reality sometimes, I asked if there’s anything I can do, and she said no thank you, and then she spoke more quietly to the people I cannot see.

--

Tonight, our longtime lady was outside screaming and crying, cursing and wailing as she loudly spoke and sobbed at people we don’t see.

She was so loud that our new lady could hear everything our longtime lady was saying. And our new lady was set off by the trauma and the drama. 

My co-manager asked our new lady, 'What’s up?' Our new lady shared that she is very upset because someone is sawing the outside lady in half, and that’s why the lady outside is crying and screaming so loudly and hard.

My co-manager went outside and talked to our long-term lady, and explained that she is setting someone else off, because she is being so loud. And my co-manager asked our longtime lady to please move. 

Our long-term lady asked about that request, and my co-manager shared that the new lady is hearing her cry and sob so loudly, and our new lady thinks someone is sawing our long-term lady in half.

And our long-term lady said “Well YES! She is the one sawing me in half!" (And how do you not crack up at that moment?)

And yet she moved.

It’s a rare moment when alternate realities mesh like that.

--

A few months ago, our long-term lady was having a very hard time. Her different personalities were each in deep pain, so different people inside of her were yelling and cursing, screaming and talking.  

The person we know her as most came to our door in total tears. Explaining that she is exhausted and just wants to SLEEP. But “they” won’t let her. They keep talking and screaming. And is it possible that I have earplugs she can use to try to finally get some SLEEP?

Of course we do, so I brought her some earplugs and a hot cocoa. 

And the voices still loudly talked and cried, sobbed and screamed outside. 

The tortured person we know best finally came to the door, in complete exhaustion and total tears, and handed me back the earplugs. And told me they don’t work.

And what can you say to that? 

--

These are just two of the many, many people who struggle significantly with mental health, and would be camped downtown, or in a neighborhood, or a strip mall, or in a park, with nowhere else to go. 

Neither are a true fit for our shelter, yet we stretch entry criteria a bit sometimes, temporarily, when we can. 

When June 1 comes and we begin evicting people from Wallace Marine and Cascade Gateway parks, where can people be when shelter beds are filled or not a fit? And where are the bootstraps they are supposed to pull up?

--

Many camping and shelter projects are coming, including permanent supported housing options in 2023. Yet with hotel stays ending for 290 people, and 500 to 600 people who will be evicted from Wallace and Cascade parks, the math doesn't work. We need places for 790 to 890 people. 

Between now and August, Community Action's new hotel, UGM's new mission, and another managed camp coming soon can accommodate up to 330 more people. That still leaves 460 to 560 people displaced. Where do they go as we tell them they can’t be anywhere?

Lynelle Wilcox is the director of SafeSleep United, a women's shelter in Salem run by United Way of the Mid-Willamette Valley. Contact her at [email protected]

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