Whenever I read about Salem's homeless problem, I feel way more sympathetic toward city officials and the City Council than I usually do.
There's simply no easy answers. They're damned if they do and damned if they don't.
Today's excellent story by Whitney Woodworth in the Statesman Journal lays out the "Mission Impossible" facing city leaders.
After more than a year, Salem officials are poised to end sanctioned camping for those living in Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks starting June 1.
But the problem that has plagued the city for years persists — there are not enough shelter beds, transitional housing or organized campsites to house the hundreds of people sleeping outside.
The plan is not to forcefully evict everyone from the parks come Tuesday but to slowly, over time, connect campers with resources as new shelter beds and housing options are added and then to clean up the emptied sections of the park.
Salem City Council voted unanimously Monday, with one councilor absent, to rescind the allowance for camping at the two parks and begin a slow rollback of the program.
Mass evictions and sweeps are not expected due to legal restrictions, lack of alternative shelters and officials' desire to not push people into camping on sidewalks downtown.
What the Salem City Council is trying to do makes sense, but probably it will end up irritating all of those involved in homeless issues.
-- Homeless people won't like being told to leave city parks, even though this will happen gradually.
-- Those who live near the Cascades Gateway and Wallace Marine parks won't like homeless camps remaining in them for the foreseeable future.
-- Advocates for the homeless won't like how few shelter/housing options exist for them in Salem.
-- Users of the parks currently sheltering homeless people won't like the destruction of public property by some of those in the camps.
This seems to be one of those social problems where giving one group what it wants leads to an unbalanced approach that really irks other involved groups.
So policymakers end up displeasing everybody to some extent, because that's the only viable option given available resources.
What's the solution? Increase the resources.
Given City of Salem budget limitations, it's unlikely that a lot of money for the homeless is going to be available locally, especially since city officials face a big bill to repair the damage caused to Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks by the camps.
Getting big bucks from the State of Oregon also seems like a long shot. There's too many competing needs, and state government can't run a budget deficit.
That leaves the federal government.
President Biden's several trillion dollar infrastructure plan, the American Jobs Act, contains many billions for affordable housing and other measures that could help homeless people.
A piece called "Can Biden End Homelessness?" is cautiously optimistic.
Last week, Biden’s American Jobs Act included $213 billion for affordable housing. This will produce or renovate one million affordable housing units and 500,000 homes for low/middle income home buyers. This money is on top of the $27.5 billion in emergency rental aid included in the American Rescue Plan.
Many of us have long argued that housing is as much part of “infrastructure” as roads and bridges. Now we have a president who agrees.
Thanks to pressure from activists, Biden’s housing platform also called for “providing Section 8 housing vouchers to every eligible family so that no one has to pay more than 30% of their income for rental housing.” Currently, nearly 75% of households eligible for Section 8 rental assistance do not receive it.
We finally have a president committed to ending widespread homelessness. And a grassroots housing movement to provide political support. Biden’s budget plans are not perfect; advocates sought nearly double the $40 billion allocated for public housing renovation– but it’s light years beyond what any prior president has proposed.
Federal funding is essential for ending homelessness. Now the key question is: Will cities open neighborhoods to ensure housing is available for the unhoused?
Well, my understanding is that the Oregon legislature already has mandated that cities relax zoning rules to allow multifamily housing in all residential areas, including single family neighborhoods. That's a step in the right direction.
And the City of Salem is engaged in a planning process aimed at revising the Comprehensive Plan that guides future development. That's another potential step in the right direction.
These steps, along with others, just need federal dollars to make them effective ways of markedly reducing Salem's homeless population. Hopefully the American Jobs Act will be approved by Congress this year, with or without Republican support.