In September, 2017 Salem City Council voted 8-0 with one abstention to defeat the proposed ordinance known as “Sit-Lie.” This vote followed comments from over 20 citizens, all but one speaking in opposition to Sit-Lie. The Council then directed the mayor to create a task force to work to identify potential solutions for problems connected with homeless people living downtown. Councilor Cara Kaser was appointed by the mayor to chair the task force, and Director of Urban Development, Kristen Retherford became facilitator.
Eighteen people were appointed by Mayor Bennett to serve as members of the task force. They included: two members of City Council; one each from three groups giving direct service to the homeless – Union Gospel Mission, ARCHES of Community Action Agency, and HOAP of Northwest Human Services; a board member of the Neighborhood Association which includes much of downtown; the lead Emergency Room physician from Salem Hospital; and a legal aid attorney. The final ten seats were filled with representatives of downtown businesses.
The Task Force held six sessions, with each attended by large numbers of citizens. The process proceeded as follows: identify issues of concern, prioritize these issues, identify possible solutions, determine which possible solutions were most specific, doable, realistic, and potentially effective. And finally – select which recommendations to present to the Mayor and City Council.
The final recommendations are:
· Provide public toilet facilities available 24/7
· Provide a hygiene center with showers and laundry facilities to serve homeless individuals in the downtown
· Endorse a simplified point of contact system that individuals may call for support in dealing with issues related to homelessness, and provide the community with easy to understand guidance on when to call 911 versus the non-emergency number, or the point of contact
· Support the development of additional storage for homeless individuals who need a safe place to store possessions during the day
· Support ways of giving other than to panhandling
· Encourage property owners to make building and site modifications that implement Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Provide Riverfront-Downtown Urban Renewal Area grants for improvements that meet grant criteria
· Pursue option for expanding downtown cleaning services
· Establish a Downtown Good Neighbor Partnership for those who live, work, shop, and visit downtown Salem that supports appropriate behavior and ongoing dialogue with stakeholders. In conjunction with the establishment of a Downtown good Neighbor Partnership, city staff will assess Salem codes and ordinances to ensure that the City is balancing the rights of those who live, work, and shop in our downtown, and providing the City with tools needed to address behaviors that negatively impact others.
Task force chair Cara Kaser says she found most encouraging the idea of forming a collaborative team to respond quickly to concerning situations. This plan would involve a non-police response team which could offer more diverse options to individuals involved in incidents. Kaser also says she is especially encouraged by the work done cooperatively by task force members, and by the input in writing received from many citizens.
These showed, she says, the depth of concern and caring in the community.
Kaser says, “The task force work is a very good first step. The new group created to be the team working in new ways can continue the work. This is an exciting time for Salem.”
The final of the approved list of recommendations has multiple somewhat ambiguous parts, including the goal of establishing a Downtown Good Neighbor Partnership, and the goal of a full assessment of Salem codes and ordinances. Hopefully more detail and clarity will emerge about these goals and about both process and progress toward meeting them.
Questions that remain for Salem Weekly are: What group will be responsible for developing and maintaining the team for the Downtown Good Neighbor Partnership? Will this be a City function? What might be the outcome of the assessment of Salem codes and ordinances? Who will be tasked with doing this work? The City attorney? Law enforcement?
Through this task force, the city has begun the work of developing effective responses to the issues associated with the growing number of people living in Salem without housing. Though the task force was charged with identifying conditions and needs in the downtown core area, the problems connected to homelessness are not just in urban core.
These growing issues are complex and city wide, county wide, state wide, regional, and national. Tremendous challenges remain, but the task force members and staff completed an impressive amount of work – and now Salem has begun the work.