Friday, December 1, 2017

Let's Make a Sobering Deal

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

Photo Courtesy HMNS
Free meals are served every evening on the east side of Marion Street, under the bridge, between the UGM Men's Mission, and the Mid Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA)'s new building at 615 Commercial Street NE.

The new MWVCAA building was acquired in June, 2017, with state funds ($487,000), on the condition that it be used as a day shelter for homeless and needy individuals.

But, as we all know, it isn't being used for that purpose, and can't be used for that purpose, until the building is renovated and okayed by the City, and no one seems to know when that will be.

State rules required the shelter to be opened and in use by June 30, 2017, but, due to poor planning, that didn't happen.  The Oregon Housing Department (OHCS) and the Housing Stability Council, which oversees the administration of state housing programs, don't seem to care.

So, for now, most of MWVCAA's 16,000 SF building lies empty or unused.

Which is too bad, because, ever since the SonRise Church lost its lease on the former Marion Car Rental and Park four or five years ago, the network of people that make up "Meals Under the Bridge", or MUBs, as they're called, have been hoping for another indoor location, so meals can be served and consumed in relative comfort.  Maybe even something with a commercial kitchen.

Last fall, 2016, when MWVCAA told the Salem Homeless Coalition they wanted to co-locate The ARCHES Project in a bigger space with other homeless services providers, the MUBs folks were supportive, hoping they'd be considered.  But that was then.

Now, almost six months post-purchase, the renovations that community was told would be completed by November have not even begun, MUBs are looking at another winter under the bridge, and MWVCAA is hoping for paying tenants to help cover their $10,000/mo mortgage payment.

Tenants like the City and County.  

Recall last February, 2017, when Mayor Bennett first announced his intention to open a sobering station in Salem, during his "State of the City" address.  Remember how MWVCAA, flush with its portion of $10M in statewide Emergency Housing Assistance (EHA) and State Homeless Assistance Program (SHAP) funds, started looking into buying, instead of leasing, a new space for The ARCHES Project, and the possibility of co-locating with the planned sobering station?  Was a sobering station a good fit with a homeless day shelter?  MWVCAA CEO Jon Reeves said sure, they'd both serve the same people.  (Reeves holds a graduate certificate in infant-toddler mental health and came to the executive directorship from the Head Start side of MWVCAA in 2015.)

But, sobering stations are expensive propositions that, in Oregon, can cost anywhere from $350,000 to $700,000 a year to operate.  The City would need partners.  Big partners, like Salem Health, WVCH (the local CCO) and Polk and Marion Counties.

According to sources, Salem Health was willing to put up some "seed money", but, not nearly enough.  Polk County and WVCH either weren't interested or weren't asked, and Marion County (i.e., Janet Carlson) wanted a deal.  According to sources, her support was contingent on the City supporting the implementation of the MWHITF Strategic Plan.

The MWHITF Strategic Plan was developed during the last year of former Mayor Anna Peterson's second term, and inherited by her successor, Mayor Chuck Bennett, who attended the last two meetings of the Task Force.  During the last one, he pledged on behalf of the city the generous sum of $40,000 toward Strategic Plan implementation.

He later thought the better of it.  During his "State of the City" address, he focused on his Homeless Rental Assistance Program, and failed to confirm his pledge of support for the Strategic Plan.  Commissioner Carlson left the event hall with a face like thunder, and promptly withdrew the County's support for the sobering station.

From that point, according to sources, negotiations were carried out by other, top level, City and County staff, and also the CEO of the Mid-Willamette Council of Governments (COG), Sean O'Day.  O'Day was once Salem's Deputy City Manager.

In May, 2017, City staff recommended not including a proposed $65,000 for the position in the budget, ranking it a 12 out of 13 on the General Fund "Wish List."

In June, 2017, as MWVCAA was scrambling to acquire their new building before the end of the fiscal year (when unspent EHA and SHAP funds would revert to the state), MWVCOG, at the request of Commissioner Carlson and Keizer Mayor Cathy Clark, was authorizing O'Day to negotiate an IGA, primarily between the City and Marion County, to hire a someone to coordinate implementation of the MWHITF Strategic Plan. 

In July, 2017, the City's Affordable Housing and Homelessness strategic plan work group considered the COG plan, but did not recommend supporting it.  By August, the plan was considered more dead than alive.

However, in September, 2017, City staff were seen touring MWVCAA's new building as a possible site for the sobering station. 

In October, COG authorized Day to execute the IGA he'd quietly negotiated over the summer, and MWVCAA forwarded architectural plans for their new building to the City that included the sobering station.

On November 27, 2017, the City Council approved without discussion the execution of the COG IGA, and payment of $45,000 toward a position that would now be called a "Homeless Initiative Program Coordinator."

The next morning, Commissioner Carlson e-blasted the job announcement to her lists.

Do these latest developments guaranteed the Mayor will get his sobering station, that MWVCAA will get its anchor tenant, and that Commissioner Carlson will have her Strategic Plan implemented?  Certainly it doesn't.  But, the probabilities have definitely shifted.  As more than one provider told us, "Janet always gets what she wants."

Maybe MUBs should speak with Commissioner Carlson about finding a place indoors, one with a commercial kitchen, perhaps, where people may be allowed to shelter briefly, instead of taking their meals outside, in the shadow of the Marion Street bridge, and MWVCAA's new $2.1M building.

1 comment:

  1. As a representative of a dozen groups I facilitate that serve dinner meals under the Marion Street Bridge, we have been in communication with Arches and their interest in bringing our efforts indoors to their facilities once they are remodeled/ready for service which is TBA.