West Salem residents gathered at Salemtowne on Tuesday, Oct. 5 to vent their frustrations about a managed camp proposed nearby during a meeting that resulted in frequent shouting and interruptions. (Saphara Harrell/ Salem Reporter)

A town hall over a planned managed homeless camp in west Salem turned vitriolic Tuesday night as hundreds of people gathered in a crowded room at Salemtowne to ask questions and voice concerns.

The gathering was tense, with audience members repeatedly cutting off or shouting over a handful of speakers from the city of Salem and homeless service provider Church at the Park who were there to answer questions over two hours.

On Sept. 27, the Salem City Council voted to allow City Manager Steve Powers to establish a managed homeless camp of up to 30 “micro-shelters,” prefabricated buildings with space for two people, at 2700 Wallace Road N.W.

The camp would be run by Church at the Park and prioritize space for people 55 and older and women.

The west Salem development is the latest proposal intended to curb the worsening homelessness problem in Salem. An increasing share of Salem’s population consider homelessness to be the biggest issue facing the city, according to an annual survey.

But the plan has drawn vocal opposition from some west Salem residents who said they’re concerned about how close the site is to children, their property values and crime.  

Tom Mahon, chair of the Salemtowne board of directors, started off the meeting by saying it was intended to be informational, “not a chance to rally the troops in opposition or in favor.” Salemtowne is a senior living community less than a half mile from the proposed camp site. The meeting was open to anyone with concerns.

About 100 people held paper signs that simply said “No!”

Jim Lewis, Salem city councilor who represents west Salem, said in the last five years the homelessness issue has grown to a point where everyone agrees something should be done about it.

He said for two years the city has tried to find a place to site a managed camp.

“We tried and tried to find places to place these camps. We’ve heard over and over there are lots of places. I asked Sunday, please contact the city if you know of places. So far, nobody has notified us,” he said. “The only thing I can’t do is nothing.”

He and other speakers went on to apologize for the lack of communication with neighbors, many of whom only found out about the project days ahead of a council vote.

“I apologize as much as I can for the lack of communication on this issue. It will never happen again,” Lewis said.

That elicited widespread laughter throughout the room.

One of the main concerns echoed throughout the meeting was the location’s proximity to Riveria Christian School, a bus stop, senior community and apartment complex.

Many people feared sex offenders would be allowed to live at the camp.

DJ Vincent, who runs Church at the Park which will manage the camp, said if someone comes up on the sex offender registry, they’re not allowed at the site.

Many of the questions at the meeting were about safety. Audience members wanted to know if residents would be background checked and how providers would keep the residents from “wandering out” into neighborhoods.

Vincent and Gretchen Bennett, the city’s homelessness liaison, said they’re still determining if they’ll run background checks on people before they’re allowed to live in the shelters. Bennett said some federal and state funding sources prohibit such measures.

Vincent said if people violate certain rules by their behavior, they’re not allowed to stay in the managed camp.

Bennett later told the group that just because someone is homeless it doesn’t make them a criminal.

Salem police Deputy Chief Steve Bellshaw said he volunteered to come to the meeting. He said the city has had great success stories with the Salem Housing Authority, which helps homeless residents find permanent housing.

He said the people they’re talking about housing at the managed camp are women who are typically victims out on the street.

“We’re not talking about young sex offenders or IV drug users,” Bellshaw said.

Vincent said there will be staff onsite 24/7 and residents have a 10 p.m. curfew.

He said Church at the Park has a list of 66 people over the age of 55 who want to live at the site. He said they would also prioritize women based on feedback from residents who were concerned about safety. He said about half of the people experiencing homelessness in Salem are women, higher than state or national averages.

He also said the camp would be fenced in. Project costs are estimated at $87,000 for site preparations, $150,000 to buy microshelters and $96,000 per month for operations, according to a city staff report.

One woman said her kids wait for the bus at the Park and Ride adjacent to the camp.

“This is shameful. Shame on you,” she told the speakers.

There are several homeless shelters or service providers that are near schools in Salem. Howard Street Charter School is near the Homeless Outreach Advocacy Project and Sonshine School is near Union Gospel Mission downtown. Church at the Park’s newest managed camp at Catholic Community Services is separated from The Kroc Center’s daycare by “railroad tracks,” Vincent said.

One man in the audience said west Salem has one of the highest tax brackets in the city with “wealthy, educated people concerned about their community.”

He said neighbors cared about their property value, the safety of their kids and what their neighborhood looks like.

Later in the meeting, after the same man repeatedly shouted to interrupt speakers, Lewis turned to him.

“You said this isn’t your problem. I say this is all our problem,” he told the man.

Nicole Utz, housing administrator at the Salem Housing Authority, asked the crowd to be open-minded to the success stories they’ve seen through her agency, getting people considered the “hardest to house” off the street.

Audience members continually talked over Utz as she tried to explain what her organization does.

“If every time we talk, we get interrupted, there’s not a lot of point in us being here right now,” Utz said.

Utz said the housing authority has successfully housed 379 people since 2017, some that became managers at McDonalds and one that bought a house.

When she urged the audience to give people experiencing homelessness a chance instead of telling them they don’t have a right to be somewhere, the room again erupted.

“That’s ridiculous,” one man shouted.

When Bennett said, “We’re all in this together,” it elicited a loud cacophony of “no”.

Some of the meeting was spent with people naming different locations they should put the camp instead. Each time, Bennett said she had checked out that spot only to find it was owned by the state or privately owned and the owners weren’t willing to let the city use it.

Bennett said she never would have proposed this site 18 months ago, but after spending months looking at state, county, city and private properties within the city, “The honest answer is it’s the only parcel I can find in our control that’s not being used for something.”

Toward the end of the meeting, an elderly woman said it was clear “we’re not going to get answers because of the shouting and the accusations.”

Bennett said the city is conducting a review of the grassy area at the Wallace Road site to determine if it floods in the winter. In the meantime, the city is looking at where it can place shelters in the parking lot adjacent to the park and ride. 

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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