Salem City Council Chambers. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
The Salem City Council on Monday affirmed its decision to authorize a managed micro-shelter homeless camp on 2700 Wallace Road N.W. following pushback from nearby residents.
In a 5-3 vote, councilors chose not to pass a motion brought forth by Councilor Jim Lewis seeking to reconsider the decision until city staff had completed an analysis of the land and met with neighbors to come up with alternate sites.
“I’m standing ready, willing and able. If we can’t find any other place and this place is feasible, it’s going to go there. I’m committed to that. But I believe we have misstepped, and we need to pull back on the approval, go through the process and that we should do it upfront,” said Lewis, who represents west Salem.
The misstep Lewis was referring to was a lack of communication between the city and nearby residents who only found out about the project days before a council approval.
Lewis contended that if the city has better communicated with residents, the results of a meeting at Salemtowne which devolved into shouting would have ended differently.
“The defense has gone up because of the lack of communication,” he said.
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.
Councilor Chris Hoy said communication with residents, though not ideal, has already occurred. He said he was hesitant to stop the process ahead of the impending winter with people sleeping on sidewalks.
“How do you unring the bell?” Hoy said.
He said a theme in a lot of the emails the council received were people “dehumanizing people who are homeless, villainizing them.”
Hoy said they got several emails from people asking if they’d be screening for sex offenders.
“That kind of characterization of people just because they happen to be homeless is outrageous. When we dehumanize a group, that’s what allows us to treat them less than. And that’s what was happening here,” he said.
Lewis said he wanted the council to think of separating the disparaging comments with people who were anxious about the lack of communication about what the project was.
“I’m not asking to slow things down. I’m asking to take a step sideways,” he said.
Councilor Jackie Leung, who told councilors she was a longtime advocate for the unsheltered, said she planned to vote with Lewis and ask staff to engage in conversations with the community and “be able to identify spaces where the unsheltered can feel safe and welcome while also ensuring our community members, our residents are heard.”
City Manager Steve Powers said the city has had difficulty finding city-owned property that’s unused or underused, acknowledging there’s no perfect site.
“We’re trying to land on the head of a pin, frankly,” Powers said.
He said they welcome any proposal of alternate locations.
“We will run those down as quickly as possible, because the urgency of the crisis continues,” Powers said.
He said the city would do better outreach in the future and that if the Wallace Road site proves unworkable, “regardless of the outcome of that analysis, that outcome will be communicated.”
Powers said the city heard loud and clear the importance of communication to residents.
Gretchen Bennett, the city’s homelessness liaison, said she’s currently trying to figure out how many shelters could fit on a city-owned piece of land that’s paved. They’re still determining if the grassy area across the street floods in the winter.
“If we discover something that causes it to be unfeasible, we will not proceed,” she said.
The city had proposed projects in a city-owned parking lot and the former Union Gospel Mission building, but both those locations were determined not to work.
Lewis, Leung and Councilor Jose Gonzalez voted ‘yes’ to the motion. Hoy, and Councilors Virginia Stapelton, Tom Andersen, Trevor Phillips and Vanessa Nordyke voted against it. Mayor Chuck Bennett was absent.
Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]
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