At last night's City Council meeting a big change was made to the homeless ordinance that passed at the previous meeting, and required a "second reading" to become law.
Instead of banning camping on public property entirely, the council decided to allow homeless people to camp on approved city-owned property. Here's some excerpts from a Salem Reporter story by Troy Brynelson, "Salem bans open camping and now seeks a place to host it."
(Kudos to Brynelson for using "eighty-sixing" in his story. I haven't seen this term used in a long time, and I'm old.)
Tents and other dwellings will soon have to disappear from sidewalks and boulevards after the Salem City Council on Monday night banned camping on public property.
But city officials aren’t eighty-sixing campers altogether. The city is taking two weeks to designate a spot for them to camp.
Councilors Tom Andersen and Vanessa Nordyke orchestrated the idea, separately pitching that city staff needed to find public property for campers to move when the ban goes into effect on Monday, Dec. 16.
As a result, city employees are expected to report to the council next Monday and what city-owned property could be used as an impromptu campground. Andersen said without such a space, it’s unclear where the camping populace would go.
Well, it's also unclear where homeless campers are going to end up under the new policy. Maybe the City of Salem owns vacant property that would make a fine place for an organized homeless camp. I'm just clueless as to where that property might be.
Parks seemingly would be ruled out. So would right of ways adjacent to busy streets. A downtown homeless camp would be too controversial. But a camp far distant from social services wouldn't make sense either.
Nordyke and Andersen, along with the rest of the City Council, did seem to make a wise decision. A Statesman Journal story by Jonathan Bach, "Salem council may set aside city property as designated camping sites for the homeless," says:
People experiencing homelessness have a shrinking list of places to go as cold weather sets in. They have been barred from camping in city parks, spurned from private land and rousted from beneath public bridges.
City officials have attempted to connect the homeless with social services, but that doesn't change the fact that area shelters do not have the capacity to give everyone a place to rest at night. Advocates estimate the homeless population to be approximately 1,800 people strong at a given time within the urban growth boundary, while the area only has about 300 emergency shelter beds. Warming shelters opened recently to bolster that number temporarily.
It's one thing if a homeless person chooses to camp out because they prefer this to being in a shelter. However, it's another thing if there aren't enough shelter beds available for every person who wants one -- which appears to be the case currently.
Last Sunday's Sixty Minutes program had an interesting segment on Seattle's homeless population. You can watch it via the Sixty Minutes web site. It featured an interview with a homeless family who has been living in a tent in a camp on public property, very much like what Salem is planning.
A transcript says:
In the shadow of Interstate 5 in Seattle, on a vacant strip of public land, this is Tent City 3. There are about 50 people living here, without heat or running water.
Ethan Wood is celebrating his third birthday. He's lived in a tent for the past year and a half.
His parents, Tricia and Josiah, told us Ethan has an enlarged heart and suffers from bouts of asthma and croup so severe, they've had to take him to the emergency room several times. Last winter, one of Seattle's coldest in recent memory, Ethan was sleeping in a tent, covered with blankets, sandwiched between his parents for warmth.
Anderson Cooper: Did you ever think, "Well, this is not the place, we should have our child"?
Josiah Wood: We don't want our son here. We don't want to be here. But as of right now, this is the safest place for us.
Tricia Wood: Absolutely.
Josiah Wood: Because we know the people, we know the rules, and--
Tricia Wood: Our family gets to stay together.
Josiah Wood: And our family stays together.
This was an eye-opener for me. I hadn't realized that many homeless people have full-time jobs that pay considerably more than minimum wage.
Tricia Wood: I used to be one of those people that thought that if anyone was homeless they just needed to go get a job. That would solve their homeless problems.
Anderson Cooper: How would you answer that question now? Why can't they just get a job?
Tricia Wood: Oh my goodness. Maybe they have a job.
Josiah Wood has a full-time job. He gets up before dawn and takes mass transit to work as a maintenance supervisor at the Hard Rock Café downtown. Though he makes $19.50 an hour, the rent for an average one-bedroom apartment in Seattle would eat up half his salary. He and Tricia say they've been saving up money so they can afford a security deposit and monthly rent.
Now, rents in Seattle must be a lot higher than rents in Salem. But there must be quite a few homeless people in Salem who also are working, yet can't afford a market-rate apartment.
It'd be great if our local journalists could do what Sixty Minutes did: interview homeless people who don't fit the stereotype of mentally ill, drug abuser, unable to work. Several others featured in the Sixty Minutes segment had full-time jobs, including a postal worker woman who lives in an old RV, and a man who worked at DEQ, I recall.
The more we can recognize the diversity of homeless people and appreciate that they are just like the rest of us, apart from not having a home, the easier it will be for those worried about having a homeless camp near them to accept the camp as a temporary solution.
The Sixty Minutes piece did note that there's a time limit in Seattle on how long a camp can be in one place. Salem probably needs to have the same policy, to make the camp on public property more acceptable to near-by businesses and residences.
This is one of several makeshift encampments in Seattle that are allowed by the city. Decisions are made by camp residents, who are also required to do chores and take turns guarding the tents. But about every three months, all the residents in Tent City Three agree to pack up and move to a new location. It's an arrangement they make with the landowners who let them pitch their tents. No one wants a camp of homeless people in their neighborhood for very long.
When we visited Ethan and his parents in September, they had just packed up their tent near the highway and were setting up in a church pastor's backyard. It was the eighth time they've had to move in the past year and a half.