On Monday night’s Salem City Council Meeting, Councilors voted 8-0 (Councilor Leung absent) to end the City of Salem’s COVID-19 Emergency Declaration which has allowed for Salem’s unsheltered population to camp in various city parks. Initially, the emergency declaration allowed for park camping with a sunset date of June 1st, 2021. During last week’s City Council work session, Council expressed their concerns with the immediate end to camping and the displacement of the unsheltered population throughout Salem.

At Monday evening’s City Council meeting, City of Salem Homeless Liaison, Gretchen Bennett, expressed the complexity of transitioning individuals who have been camping in both Wallace Marine Park and Cascade Gateway Park.  There are many challenges to finding new landing spots for the unsheltered population.  In addition, the significant costs of clean up within the parks currently hosting unsheltered residents is expensive to conduct and even more expensive to maintain as spaces which do not allow overnight camping establishments.

In a substantial change of direction, City Councilors last Monday voted to include language of a “gradual” ending of camping in parks, as the City seeks new locations and services for the unsheltered population in Salem.  A key aspect of the “gradual” move of the city to vacate campers from the city parks is also due to the 2009 9th District Circuit Court decision in the Martin vs. Boise (ID) case which made “moving” of our unsheltered population by law enforcement illegal, as it is not a crime to be homeless.  The City Attorney Dan Atchison shared a legal differentiation in a City staff report which states, “It is likely that even if Salem had a variety of shelter options available, some individuals would have court justifications for not using those options.”  The gradual option means transitioning unsheltered populations who wish to receive services into the proper programs and housing options, while those who wish to remain unsheltered are no longer permitted to set up overnight camping within Salem parks.

Monday’s City Council vote ultimately directs city staff begin moving the unsheltered population out of Salem parks, beginning on June 1st, albeit with a gradual approach.  The City will work with community service partners and the police to begin the process of cleaning up our parks and informing the unsheltered population that camping in Salem parks is no longer a permitted use.  There was no specific date in time for which individuals are expected to be moved out of parks, but City Council noted this work is to be completed within months.  Part of the push for a gradual approach is sought to protect downtown businesses from an overnight migration of unsheltered individuals moving into the downtown corridor, which was a previous hub for large numbers of unsheltered individuals seeking to be in close proximity to many social service organizations.   

City staff is expected to report back “frequently” with updates on this transition and the Salem Chamber will keep our members updated on new and emerging developments as they are brought forth.

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