By Natalie Roadarmel
It was estimated that there were 1,151 homeless people living in Marion and Polk counties in 2017. In 2016, that number was estimated to be 856. The homeless population in Salem has heightened rapidly in the past few years, mainly due to a lack of attention and resources from the city. This issue was not addressed until recently because homeless numbers were small, but it resulted in a lack of rehabilitation efforts for the large number of people living on the streets today.
This year, the annual count for Salem’s homeless was scheduled to be taken on Jan. 31. However, two days beforehand, authorities moved a large group of homeless from under the Mill Creek Bridge, near Costco and Lowe’s. Advocates struck back, arguing that it was unfair for these people to be moved right before the count of Salem’s homeless. In addition, winter is known as a bad time to do sweeps due to poor health conditions of the homeless population during this season. Advocates spend months creating information about where homeless people stay, and when they are moved it greatly disrupts their work.
Walmart has also recently played a role in relocating homeless people. The company no longer allows overnight stays in vans, cars or RV in their Mid-Willamette Valley parking lots. For many years, Walmart has allowed vehicles to stay overnight in these parking lots, as they offer a relatively safe and secure place for people to sleep. These changes were not made by the company as a whole, but by store managers or landlords of the store property, if Walmart does not own the land. This loss of parking can be detrimental to individuals or families living in cars, which is often the first stepping stone to homelessness.
So how is Salem addressing this large problem? A new homeless rental assistance program has been implemented by City Officials to help Salem’s most vulnerable homeless population. This program costs 2.9 million dollars a year and so far 14 people have been put in housing because of it. A recent “sit-lie” ordinance, which meant to outlaw sitting on public sidewalks during the day, was also rejected by the Salem City Council in September, after public members spoke out with criticism.
The Union Gospel Mission is also a great resource for local homeless. They currently run a men’s shelter that holds 200 beds and serves up to 400 people every day. They also have a shelter for Women and Children, traditional housing and recovery programs for those who need them. Other services, such as HOAP, are also working throughout Salem to help homeless in need.
Recovering from homelessness is not a one-solution fix. It is a complicated and non-linear route to help and housing. Barriers to employment are real, and being homeless only amplifies the struggles tied to finding work. Not having clean clothes, a place to shower, adequate food and water, or a comfortable place to sleep are all huge challenges that can easily prevent a person from finding work. In addition, finding a job does not necessarily mean a person will make enough money to pay for housing. Although Salem has made efforts to help those in need, they have clearly not done enough to properly secure housing and safety for people who are currently living on the streets. Changes are being made, but the city still has a long way to go in housing the rest of its homeless population.