Saturday, March 21, 2020

COVID-19 Returns Campers to City Parks

By Sarah Owens and Michael Livingston

Wallace Marine Park after September 2019 bulldozing, photo courtesy Statesman Journal
Six months after the City cleared homeless camps in Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks, campers have returned.  See Bach, J. and Ranovich, C.  "Recent evictions, police activity could end decades of homeless camps in Wallace Marine Park."  (15 September 2019, Statesman Journal.)  In a desperate effort to remove 30-50 people living on the sidewalks outside Rite Aid and along Center Street, City Council this week held an emergency session, banned loitering and gatherings in public spaces, and opened the two parks to camping in unimproved areas through April 28.  See "Sit-Lie Meets COVID-19."

News of the temporary policy shift spread quickly to campers and other homeless individuals living less visibly throughout Salem's 18 neighborhoods, and by week's end, there were reportedly about 100 camps in Wallace Marine Park and 30 in Cascades Gateway Park.  No one, including the City, has any idea how long they will be allowed to remain.  Right now, everyone and everything's focused on controlling the spread of COVID-19.  Update:  Harrell, S. "Homeless person in Salem quarantined in motel after testing positive for COVID-19."  (26 March 2020, Salem Reporter.)  Dave Miller Think Out Loud interview with Jimmy Jones.

Monday night, Council will conduct the second reading of Ordinance Bill 6-20, which bans sitting and lying on sidewalks and City rights of way.  "See Sit Lie Passes, But Will Cost."  The ban is effective immediately, but may not be enforced "until the opening of additional daytime space that is protected from the elements and includes access to toilets. This space must be open during all periods the restrictions in this ordinance are in effect (7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., Monday through Sunday)."  See Section 2(r).

So long as its loitering-gathering ban remains in place, the City doesn't "need" sit-lie to control the homeless downtown, .  But, once the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, say a year from now, Council will face exactly the same situation it faced so disastrously last fall:  breaking up the camps in the parks and surrounding areas means driving campers into downtown and nearby neighborhoods, unless in the mean time providers have managed to house a significant number of campers, stand up a permanent low-barrier shelter, and open a 24/7 navigation center.

None of those contingencies seems likely in the aftermath of the pandemic.  The special session that  Mayor Bennett was hoping would focus on "the homeless package" will now be focused on the COVID-19 response.  And the $45 million the legislature was ready to commit to ending homelessness has basically dried up, as the state, if not the world, hurtles into an economic recession.  And with it, any hope Salem had of standing up a permanent low-barrier shelter or 24/7 navigation center by this fall.

If anyone's wondering whether Council might resort to its big tent solution as a fall back low-barrier shelter (see "Sit Lie Could Cost $30-$75K a Month"), that seems even less likely.  Monday night, Council considers Resolution No. 2020-19, withdrawing the referral of Ordinance Bill No. 11-19 (creating an employee-based payroll tax) to Salem voters at the May 19, 2020 election.  It will doubtless pass.  That means no payroll tax revenue in the City's immediate future, which means no City funds for a big tent shelter this fall.        

The City is reportedly upset to discover so many campers at the parks.  For some reason, they didn't believe what Jimmy Jones repeated ad nauseum about their significant numbers and dispersal throughout the City.  But, what the City should be concerned about is the effect of the COVID-19 outbreak on providers and the implications for their clients.  The ARCHES Project has had to close its mobile shower service and day shelter.  Staff are conducting outreach to the camps and downtown (yes, there are still people living in the streets downtown) and  clients will still be able to use the restroom and pick up mail and a sandwich.  The Union Gospel Mission reportedly has stopped doing intakes (Men's Mission and Simonka House) and is otherwise serving only those enrolled in a program, except that the Men's Mission is still providing bagged lunches.  Only HOAP (Northwest Human Services) is providing day shelter, showers and laundry.

The time will come when the City again decides it's time to clean up the camps in Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway parks.  It's unrealistic, perhaps, to expect the City to begin planning for that day now, with such uncertainty affecting so many aspects of daily life and no immediate end to the uncertainty in sight.  Nevertheless, the question should be in the back of everyone's mind.  What is the plan?  Because the day will come, and the question must be asked -- and answered satisfactorily -- before action is taken to break up the camps and sweep people out of the parks.  If the City is to avoid what happened in 2019, the City must be "pro" active.  That means, before the situation becomes a public health emergency, the City should develop a plan with providers, and share it with the community, and begin as soon as possible.

In the mean time, it will come as a surprise to no one that, aside from moving homeless off of downtown streets, that the City is not enforcing the ban on gathering and loitering.  See Woodworth, W. "Q&A: How do Salem's new rules on gatherings, camping in parks affect residents?" (20 March 2020, Statesman Journal.)  Talking to people who've gathered in chairs outside Starbucks and elsewhere around downtown and Bush Park, we find people are generally aware of the ban and social distancing guidance, and simply don't care.  Salem Health has closed the Let's All Play Playground.  If the City Council was serious about wanting to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it should take similar actions.

Bush Park, March 21, 2020

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