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Salem report highlight the ways homelessness impact taxpayers

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Of the Keizertimes

A report by the Salem city manager delivered to that city’s council and mayor and shared with the Mid-Willamette Homeless Initiative (MWHI) task force Monday, Jan. 23, sheds light onto the ways homelessness taxes public systems ill-equipped to manage the various issues contributing to the problem.

Steve Powers, Salem’s city manager, wrote that city officials have been working to alleviate the strain, but with more than 1,600 people in Marion and Polk counties experiencing homelessness the issues rising to the surface are in need of different approaches.

One of the leading complaints are criminal behaviors, such as someone relieving themselves in public, illegal camping, possession of alcohol in parks, trespassing and disorderly conduct.

“Behaviors people may find offensive and unsightly, such as panhandling, sitting or sleeping on sidewalks, and sleeping in parks are not illegal,” Powers wrote.

Panhandling has been ruled protected speech by the Oregon Supreme Court and sleeping in a public park has been deemed a basic human function protected by the U.S. Constitution by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. So long as the individual is not on private property, in a closed public space, or in a vehicle they are generally protected. Loitering is also not illegal unless there is intent to interfere with passersby.

However, sleeping in parks has led to other frustrations and costs.

“Transients have destroyed sprinkler heads at Marion Square Park so they do not get wet during the night while sleeping on the ground,” Powers wrote.

Other impacts, like excessive litter, are being felt in other parks.

Police officers have issued citations and made some arrests to curb the behavior of some individuals, but oftentimes the arrests are not “lodgeable offenses,” meaning the Marion County Correctional Facility will not accept them. The result more often, Powers suggests, is creating a cycle of arrest – “arrest, failure to appear, warrant issued, arrest on warrant, failure to appear, warrant issued” and so on.

“Law enforcement is ill-equipped, both statutorily and resource-wise, to approach the problem of homelessness throughout the city,” Powers concludes.

Powers suggests an emphasis be placed on creating additional shelter beds and temporary housing for those in need. At best, Marion and Polk counties are equipped to shelter less than have the current homeless population and reaching that level requires violating fire and safety codes at local shelters during emergencies.

He also sees a need for a “one-stop” resource center.

“Law enforcement has a difficult time assisting the homeless in getting them connected with resources because one agency deals with addiction, another with housing, and yet another with mental illness. These providers rarely overlap and none are in the same office,” Powers wrote.

Taking a cue from Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett, the MWHI added the establishment of a one-stop resource center to its list of recommendations once the task force concludes its work next month.

“Our general feeling in the city is that the lack of coordinated resources has created a barrier. We believe that is an important part for helping people out of homelessness,” Bennett said.

He added that developing a centralized database to collect information with the goal of getting a better handle on the problem could be part of its services.

Shaney Starr, director of Strategic Initiatives for Dick Withnell, said she supported the idea, but didn’t want to accept another recommendation for a project without funding.

“You’re making a really good point, but I think this is a chicken-and-egg problem. We need the recommendation to begin assigning the resources for these kinds of programs,” Bennett countered.

Starr ended up supporting the recommendation.

Jon Reeves, executive director of Community Action Agency, said elements of the CAA offerings would be willing to relocate under one roof with other agencies.

Another recommendation accepted by the MWHI members involves establishing a sobering center with the cooperation of Salem Health, the City of Salem, Marion County and nonprofit organizations.

Sobering centers are equipped to provide safe spaces for severely intoxicated people or those suffering from an acute reaction to drugs until they no longer pose a threat to themselves and others. Those in need of the sobering center would also have access to addiction services.

According to a recommendation outline provided by Bennett, Salem Health’s emergency room admits about 10 people per night in need of detox services.

“The result has been really tremendous pressure on the emergency room, and it’s as an expensive a way to handle sobering as we can find,” Bennett said.

The recommendation was approved unanimously.