SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Salem’s homeless camping ban may have backfired.
Enacted in mid-December, it first pushed people out of downtown and away from The ARCHES Project, to a brief stay at the Oregon Capitol Mall and then elsewhere, only to migrate back to the sheltering buildings of downtown.
The only real difference is that those experiencing homelessness can no longer set up tents to shield themselves from the rain and cold.
It’s left downtown a battleground. People driving past yell out their windows and honk at the homeless clustered en masse by the former Nordstrom building. More sleep outside Ride Aid and T.J. Maxx.
Some business leaders say if the situation isn’t resolved, businesses may abandon the city’s core. T.J. Maxx and Starbucks are already departing. One commercial real estate official has linked the moves to the homeless crisis, but corporate representatives for the companies have not.
Caught in the middle are people like Annastasia Kistner, who moved from the ARCHES services center to the Capitol Mall to the Nordstrom sidewalk.
“I don’t want to be out here,” Kistner told the Statesman Journal on a recent night.
“I have my 2-year-old son out in Arizona with my mom right now because I am out here and I didn’t want him exposed to any of this and taken by DHS,” she said, referring to the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Councilor Cara Kaser, the camping ban’s main architect, called it “a necessary tool to ensure public spaces are available for all residents to use and enjoy.”
“The camping ordinance is working as it was designed, which is to prohibit structures on the public right of way,” Kaser told the Statesman Journal. “As a result, the issue has changed and now we need to determine how best to respond.”
If 2019 was the year Salem leaders came up with as many fixes as they could to salve the city’s homeless crisis, 2020 will be the year those ideas are put to the test. Organized car camping and semi-permanent warming shelters appear to be the most attainable short-term fixes.
The homeless population — which includes people living outside, in shelters and in cars — stands at about 1,800, according to advocates.
“We can expect the situation to continue to get worse in the near future,” said Jimmy Jones, executive director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which offers services to the homeless. “As a community we have ignored both the grave human and economic consequences of chronic street homelessness for too long.”
Enforcement actions over the past year have kept Salem’s homeless on the move.
Authorities last year stopped allowing free meals under the Marion Street Bridge and continued sweeping homeless camps around the city.
Perhaps one of the biggest efforts came when private landowners and city officials last year cleared an encampment e stimated at one point to hold more than 150 people in and around Wallace Marine Park.
City councilors added a camping ban to the mix but before adequate shelter space was available to catch the displaced.
City and nonprofit leaders didn’t secure enough space to open a proposed 140 semi-permanent warming shelter beds by New Year’s Day, the deadline set by the City Council before the camping ban went into effect.
The beds were supposed to be available from January through the end of March.
Instead, only about 25 semi-permanent beds have come online to bolster the stock of warming shelter beds that open when temperatures drop below freezing.
Officials opened the 25 beds at Church at the Park near Cascades Gateway Park on the city’s southeast side and the SafeSleep UNITED shelter for women.
City councilors in December approved more than $200,000 to pay for the semi-permanent warming shelter beds. But the plan faltered after a downtown church that was essentially volunteered for the project said it wasn’t contacted ahead of time and could not participate.
The communications misstep sent city and nonprofit officials searching for a new spot to house the continuous warming shelter. Their search didn’t turn anything up in time for the new year.
Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford acknowledged the plan fell apart in an email to city councilors.
“At this time, a viable option has not been located and a sheltering operation will not be established by January 1, 2020,” she wrote in the Dec. 31 email.
“Churches within the warming shelter network do not have the capacity to support nightly operations, even if another entity is in a primary operational role,” she wrote.
According to Retherford’s email, the main criteria for a space include:
1. Having a property owner who is willing to agree to a short-term lease;
2. Meeting building fire and safety requirements with few modifications;
3. Suitability as a shelter;
4. Impacts on surrounding neighborhoods;
5. Lease price;
6. The space’s proximity to services and resources.
“The low-barrier duration warming through the wet season is a critical need,” Jones said. “We spend a lot of time talking about saving lives in the winter, but our goal really ought to be to prevent human suffering.”
Many people who don’t have shelter struggle from chronic health problems, some of which are “very serious,” he said. Living outdoors during the winter worsens those conditions.
“People can and do die from complications from exposure to wet and cold weather, even when the temperatures are well above freezing,” Jones said. “Heat loss from lack of cover or wet or damp clothing creates complications and exacerbates underlying health conditions.”
Sleeping outdoors, the homeless also risk having their belongings stolen.
Kistner said: “You kind of just got to sleep out in the open and hope for the best, hope that no one messes with you or tries to take any of your stuff.”
Kelly McDonald, who bought the former Nordstrom building last year with backing from Portland developers, has two potential tenants lined up for the roughly 60,000-square-foot building.
It’s prime real estate at 420 Center St. NE, with high visibility for drivers coming into downtown from the traffic bridge over the Willamette River. But the homeless have overtaken sidewalks along his building. One recent night, close to 20 people were crowded along the public walkway, their belongings huddled close to the building’s walls.
When the prospective tenants toured the site, the homeless had not yet come to the sidewalk, McDonald said. “It is absolutely critical that the camp that has been established be removed,” he said.
His options are limited. Police can only intervene if people are breaking the no-camping ordinance.
Most people aren’t erecting structures or violating city rules by sleeping or congregating at those locations, so long as they stay off private property, Retherford wrote in her December email to councilors.
Property owners can reach out to Salem police if people are trespassing, she wrote, though police are asking people to voluntarily remove structures that are erected.
Urban Development Department staff have reached out to property owners to tell them city grants can pay for “security improvements,” including fences, cameras and lighting improvements, Retherford wrote.
That leaves property owners like McDonald at an impasse.
“If the downtown homeless situation is not resolved, not only will it adversely impact our attempts to lease the facility, you could see additional businesses leave the downtown as well,” he said.
Curt Arthur, managing partner with real estate company SVN Commercial Advisors, has said downtown merchants approached his business wanting to know about other locations if the issue isn’t fixed.
McDonald voiced similar frustration. “As property owners trying to help revitalize downtown Salem through investment and recruitment efforts, we are increasingly frustrated by the ineffectiveness of city government and tax-funded social service agencies to provide alternatives to help those in need,” he said.
Homelessness dominated the Salem City Council’s agenda in 2019’s final months.
A ban on sitting and lying on public sidewalks and sanctioned tent camping at city parks were two of the ideas considered before councilors left their last meeting of the year. Outside council chambers, one group pitched transforming Salem’s former Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility into a homeless services center.
The proposals came as residents considered homelessness the city’s top priority, according to the latest survey by DHM Research gauging public sentiment in Salem.
Out of the flurry emerged a few ideas that appeared to hold weight. City Councilor Chris Hoy pitched organized car camping, an idea that has been tested in Beaverton.
That city’s Safe Parking Pilot Program offers storage, portable bathrooms, case management and garbage removal services, according to the city. Beaverton city councilors allocated more than $42,000 for the pilot program.
Two locations are up and running, a city spokeswoman has said. The locations have three parking spaces each with trash services, storage and portable restrooms. People using the car camping spaces are expected to attend case management meetings.
Aided by Jones of the Community Action Agency, Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, stepped in with a proposal to secure approximately $3.7 million in the February short session for a semi-permanent homeless warming shelter.
Jones emailed city councilors Jan. 6 to say the most appropriate space for a duration-style warming shelter is a former Department of Human Services building at 1185 22nd St. SE; however, it isn’t zoned for the work and would cost upwards of $3 million.
“I believe that the state will deliver the purchase price for that building, but we would need to agree to a six month lease with an option to buy at the least (and likely a promise to buy),” Jones wrote in the email.
Other options under consideration were the former Toys R Us store on Lancaster Drive NE and the former Value Village building on Mission Street SE, according to the email.
“I will continue to look for a building ahead of the Jan 13th City Council meeting, but I am not optimistic given the very narrow Goldilocks range on all the possibilities,” Jones wrote.
Jones wrote councilors could consider repealing the camping ban inside non-commercial and non-residential districts, allowing people to migrate to industrial areas and areas close to the urban growth boundary.
Doing so “would essentially return us to the status quo we had last summer. We have been lucky, in some respects, in that the overnight temperatures have not been too cold, or we would see more folks pushing into abandoned buildings or residential area tool sheds and the like,” he wrote. “No one that I know of has died.”
Jones also wrote that officials need to more aggressively pursue a permanent duration-style warming shelter space.
Housing prices and homelessness rates remain tied together, advocates say.
Gov. Kate Brown’s office also signaled she will prioritize the issues in the 2020 session. “Our office continues to have conversations with legislators leading up to the short session about strategies and funding mechanisms to address homelessness and affordable housing,” said Charles Boyle, Brown’s spokesman.
The steadiest solution has been Salem’s homeless rental assistance program, which aims to get the chronically homeless off the streets and into stable housing.
So far it has housed more than 200 — including those who aren’t among the chronically homeless — though its financial future has come into question with city cutbacks and uncertainty around a payroll tax heading to voters this year to help right-size Salem’s budget.
Program officials are looking for more ways to pay for the program in the upcoming budget year, said Nicole Utz, housing administrator for the Salem Housing Authority, which administers the program. The authority has not received final confirmations for any funding awards.
Officials will continue applying for grants as they become available, Utz said.
City leaders and homeless advocates agree something has to be done, and quickly.
“We have to do better as a community to understand that this is a public health crisis, and not a crisis of work ethic or personal morality,” Jones said.
“When times get difficult people too often want to blame the homeless for the blight they see around them, but the truth is that the homeless are largely victims of a complex system that cannot meet the economic, health and treatment needs of everyone in the community,” he said.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed comments about the Salem Housing Authority to city spokeswoman Nicole Miller. The comments were made by Nicole Utz, housing administrator for the Salem Housing Authority.