As the first frost of the season settled over Salem and overnight temperatures dipped below freezing on Oct. 25, the more than 1,500 homeless people living in the city searched for warmth.
Some slept at the Union Gospel Mission, the city’s largest men’s shelter, or some of the smaller area shelters.
Hundreds slept in cars and city parks, struggling to stay warm as the temperatures dropped.
A warming shelter at the Salem First Presbyterian Church quickly reached capacity at 30 guests.
On Sunday, the ARCHES Day Center — usually only open weekdays — opened its doors to help people stay out of the morning chill and saw a record-breaking 76 guests.
So much attention has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn and wildfires, that the plight of those living unsheltered can sometimes get forgotten. Those same disasters could push even more people on the margins into homelessness this winter, advocates said.
COVID-19 restrictions are limiting the capacity of shelters and emergency warming centers. And volunteers to run those centers are even harder to come by during the pandemic, as many are older and at higher risk of serious complications from the virus or are trying to avoid crowds altogether.
But new housing options have opened or are scheduled to open. City officials are looking into new duration shelters and possible organized tent camps.
“Probably more is going on right now in terms of homeless services than has ever been. But if you look outside, you can’t really tell,” said Jimmy Jones, director of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency. “Because it looks like it’s getting worse.”
Tents and tarps cover Market Street near Interstate 5. Hundreds of people are sleeping in Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks after an emergency declaration banned camping downtown and allowed camping in the two city parks.
Neighbors to the two parks are worried about park destruction, lawlessness and possible increases in burglaries, menacing and trespassing tied to the encampments.
In August, police officials said reports of certain crimes, like theft, burglary and vehicle break-ins, in west Salem near Wallace Marine Park have seen an increase in 2020 while calls for service for other alleged crimes have been on the decline compared to 2019.
At the same time, parking complaints and harassment complaints saw a slight uptick, according to police data.
‘Facing a crisis’ in the parks
During a recent City Council meeting, Cory Poole, chair of the Southeast Mill Creek Association, showed councilors a slideshow of photos depicting campsites piled with garbage, mounds of needles and “hundreds” of illegally felled trees in Cascades Gateway Park, which borders a senior living community.
“Cascades Gateway and Wallace Marine parks are facing a crisis,” Poole said. “While I know that the emergency park camping policy was made with the best intentions, the result has been inadequate for the homeless, dangerous for the surrounding neighbors, and also detrimental to the parks themselves.”
He said he’s worried sex offenders could be camping next to single mothers with small children, who he can often hear at night.
“There’s currently, to my knowledge, very little or no supervision. The population cannot be expected to maintain a safe environment for everyone,” Poole said. “The damage to the parks is heartbreaking.”
Support local journalism: Stay up on city and economic development news. Become a Statesman Journal subscriber and get unlimited digital access to stories that matter.
Poole operates the nearby Paradise Island Park, a 55+ community, and said he’s seen “an amazing amount of crime” hit the area, including seeing a man prowl through the community at 1:30 a.m. with a pair of bolt cutters and an 80-year-old resident having her back gate kicked in at the middle of the night.
Despite increasing security, Poole said he feels like he’s fighting a losing battle.
Several councilors apologized to Poole and agreed that something needed to be done to remedy the situation.
Poole suggested the city look into alternatives like organized camps in empty lots, similar to “Right 2 Dream Too” in Portland.
Efforts to clean up, add beds
During the council meeting, Gretchen Bennett, Salem’s homelessness liaison, pointed to some recent progress — the city had worked to removed dozens of dilapidated vehicles, some of which didn’t have engines or were leaking fluids, illegally parked at the two parks.
She said city staff is working to make the parks cleaner, a mission further complicated by sometimes not knowing whether a site is abandoned.
“One of the important challenges with cleanup is making sure that we’re removing what everyone agrees is truly garbage and not someone’s personal property,” Bennett said.
She encouraged neighbors who witness crimes to report it to the police as soon as possible. Bennett also said staff is working on adding more trash receptacles and more portable toilets.
“Everyone agrees a park and an undeveloped part of the park is not a forever home,” she said, adding that the key is finding and building up other shelter resources.
City Manager Steve Powers said the city could increase enforcement at the two parks.
More options are expected to be discussed at the Nov. 9 Salem City Council meeting.
When COVID-19 hit the region, Jones warned that the sidewalk camping downtown would be a “human rights disaster” for spreading the disease. The move to the parks was an improvement but far from ideal, he said.
Mitigating outbreak:Homeless advocates prepare for potential coronavirus outbreak in Salem
“On one hand, I’m glad Wallace and Cascades are there,” Jones said.
But as the cold weather and rains continue — and the streams and rivers in the parks rise — camping in the parks will become even less ideal. People will crowd in the park. Jones said it would be better to spread the population out to give more space or move people to an area that allows for more organization and control.
And concentrating people in the two areas feels unfair to those in east and west Salem who live near the parks, he said.
Near Cascades Gateway Park, the Church at the Park navigation center is providing 100 boxed meals, clothing and sleeping bags to 200 people a week.
DJ Vincent, founding pastor of Church at the Park, said they work to bring services to the people living in the park, including monthly mobile health services and the Cash for Trash program to encourage people to clean up the camps in exchange for a gift card.
The church oversees the Safe Parking Network for 100 people living in their vehicles to safely and legally park at more than 15 sites citywide.
Vincent said they are set to open a 20-bed women’s shelter on State Street on Nov. 15 and have a proposal in for a managed, one-acre campsite for up to 50 people. A location has not yet been determined for the organized camp.
Winter looms large
Salem’s homeless populationhas so far largely avoided the virus, perhaps thanks to the less crowded conditions in the parks and the temporary housing of medically vulnerable people in area motels.
Jones said those with suspected cases are still being housed in motels, but the need could increase as anotwave of COVID-19 cases hits the area.
His agency is looking at creating a new motel program for housing medically fragile people before they get sick, to complement the warming network.
“This winter is going to be a street fight to stay open, marshal labor and resources, and keep people from dying outside and not catching the virus in congregate models,” Jones said.
Ashley Hamilton, program director of the ARCHES Project, said the Salem Warming Network is comprised of three churches for emergency activation on nights that dip below freezing.
Two overnight duration warming shelters, one through Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency and another being sponsored by the agency but run by the Salem Leadership Foundation, will open in December.
“These facilities will be open each night regardless of temperature,” Hamilton said. “All participants are highly vulnerable sub-populations (like) women, elderly, immune-compromised and families and are enrolled into these programs via Coordinated Entry, guaranteeing them a placement for 30 days.”
Volunteers are vital to running the warming shelters, Hamilton said. The need for volunteers has been further complicated by COVID-19; Those who tend to volunteer — older, retired residents — are at a higher risk of serious complications from the virus.
“Volunteers are a key pillar to being able to open sites,” Hamilton said. “The more volunteers that engage per night, the more sites we can open and ultimately the more lives our community can help save.”
The ARCHES day center recently expanded its weekday hours and Hamilton said they hope to open on Saturdays through the winter.
Unemployment lawsuit:More Oregonians can join lawsuit over unemployment benefits
COVID-19 restrictions, delays
During the first night of the warming shelter activation, Salem First Presbyterian Church reached capacity at 30 guests.
In pre-COVID times, that capacity was 90, Jones said.
Across the board, shelters and services are having to limit capacity to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
At the Union Gospel Mission of Salem men’s shelter, beds are limited to 125. Before, they could sleep 198 on beds and mats.
Mark Hunter, UGM’s director of development, said the shelter has been getting close to reaching capacity. He expects the need for the shelter to increase as the weather takes a turn.
A new, 300-bed men’s shelter that was set to open in north downtown on Dec. 31 would have boosted UGM’s capacity to well over 400 when including their women’s shelter, Simonka Place.
But due to construction delays caused first by COVID-19 then by the wildfires, the new shelter won’t open until late spring, Hunter said.
On Market Street near Interstate 5, the number of tents and tarp has been growing for several weeks.
The highway overpass provides shelter from the elements. And because agencies like the Oregon Department of Transportation are following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines to not evict homeless campers during the pandemic, many of the sites are here to stay — for now.
The focus now is not in sweeps and pushing people out but instead finding them another place to stay.
Bennett said the city’s urban renewal agency is moving to take overthe old DMV building on Portland Road as a duration warming shelter to be run by the community action agency.
The shelter would provide 25 spaces for highly vulnerable homeless individuals inside and possibly 20 to 25 vehicle camping spots and 20 to 25 tents spots for organized camping.
Bennett said these sites could help take the pressure off the parks and alleviate problems reported by neighbors.
“Clearly, there’s a need for more sheltering options,” Bennett said. “And when we talk about winter … that’s a critical need because these programs can be life-saving.”