Where should we sleep, we the thousand-plus residents of Salem who do not have homes? Our fellow residents do not want us sleeping in their yards, and we do not want to sleep there. It is cold, and wet, and scary. They do not want us sleeping in the parks, or the alleys, or in the doorways of businesses, or in vehicles on their streets. But, where then?
There are shelters, right? Don’t they house those without homes? There are the following shelters in the Salem-Keizer community: Union Gospel Mission can bed down approximately 150 adult single men each night. Simonka Place can accommodate approximately 105 adult women and 14 children. The number of children may be increased to 19 during severe weather. St Francis Shelter for homeless families can house 13 families. Interfaith Hospitality Network regularly houses four families by transporting them among participating churches which host them for dinner and overnight. Grace House welcomes nine adult women. Salvation Army has 86 beds available for single adult men and women. The Center for Hope and Safety houses victims fleeing domestic violence, a particular subset of our homeless, and has 25 beds. Assuming an average of three people in each family, the current shelters can house approximately 440 individuals.
This appears to be a large number of shelter beds, until it is compared to the need. The PIT count (point in time count) required by the federal Housing and Urban Development Department takes place in January throughout the nation. Each community attempts to count its homeless population. In January, 2017 the count for Salem area was well over 1000. PIT counts are thought to under represent actual need, since it is difficult to find and count people living in places not meant for human habitation. Informed workers estimate the numbers of homeless people in the Salem area to be close to 2,500 and above. Clearly, although the shelter beds are always full and greatly needed, the supply does not come at all close to meeting the needs.
Salem is said to have a housing vacancy rate of less than 1%. Rents are steadily rising. The shortage of affordable housing persists. More and more people are simply priced out of housing.
So, again, Where Should We Sleep? Where do our homeless teens sleep? Or the members of the approximately 42 unduplicated families turned away from our shelters each month? Salem has no shelter at all for couples without children with them.
What solutions are being tried in other places? Might one or more of these work in Salem? Presented here in order of increasing cost and investment.
• Approval could be given for businesses and churches wishing to participate to permit up to three vehicles housing homeless owners to park on their parking lots overnight.
Guidelines would be developed. Applicants would need to apply. All persons participating would be screened. Hours approved elsewhere are 9:30 PM until 6:30 AM. This could be accomplished quickly, and with no or low capital investment. A service organization would be needed for oversight and coordination. Police would have full identification of both persons and vehicles before the fact.
• Approval could be given for small well supervised clusters of tiny houses where well screened homeless persons could live temporarily for a period of a few months while actively participating in case management, and while also actively giving regular hours of community service to the city.
Tiny houses can be upgraded to add insulation, roof solar sheet collectors, etc. They can be safe, attractive, effective, and well supervised. This offers a relatively inexpensive way to house a significant number of homeless people in a safe setting. Mayor Bennett has steadfastly opposed such an effort here in Salem. Perhaps his concerns could be addressed and resolved.
• In Seattle two architects founded the BLOCK Project, a nonprofit that aims to house the homeless in high quality tiny house style backyard cottages. The tiny houses are fully plumbed and wired and average 125 square feet. The BLOCK Project builds and owns the houses, helps with planning permission and insurance. The homeowners lend the space and welcome the inhabitant.
This program is using principles of community support to help solve the need for Seattle’s over 12,000 homeless.
Above are three varied examples of relatively low-cost projects to effectively shelter people without homes. Could these be viable in Salem?
In other cities there are much larger projects aiming to provide housing. Some of these have very high costs and involve building large structures. Instead, what could be done Here, Now, Realistically, Affordably, using available resources? Could there be a good answer to the question, “Where Should We Sleep?”