More than 1,800 people in the Salem area are affected homelessness – a number that has continued to grow in recent years as the economy struggles and housing costs rise.
And while the number of shelter beds has increased in recent years, more people still sleep in tents, cars and on sidewalks than there are available beds.
Local advocates have pointed to the dire need for mental health services, transitional housing, and low-cost shelters that allow pets and couples and do not require sobriety or participation in religious programs.
Salem’s first-ever navigation center is designed to meet those critical needs in the community. The accessible center with 75 beds will open this winter. City officials and lawyers say it will be more than just a place to sleep. It will be a unique center to connect and continue mental health services, helping people find stability before moving into permanent housing.
But the project at 1185 22nd St. SE is more than a year behind schedule after the renovation of a former office building in southeast Salem proved to be a major undertaking.
City officials said work didn’t begin until this summer after they raised the last bit of money needed to pay for construction.
“The city didn’t make the offer until we had the funds to pay for the resulting construction work,” city spokeswoman Courtney Knox Busch said. “We got the last piece of funding, the $3 million grant from Marion County, in June 2022.”
Before making a bid in July, city officials estimated construction would cost $4.17 million. The contract was awarded to the lowest bidder, Woodburn Construction Company, who made an offer of $3.83 million. The city accepted the offer.
Construction started in August. Meanwhile, the need in the community has continued to grow.
“We understand that Salem holds this need in high regard — community members, neighbors, business owners, our elected officials,” said Gretchen Bennett, the city’s homelessness liaison officer. “It’s a top priority and this is so vitally needed.”
Bennett recently walked through the under-construction building in southeast Salem with Ashley Hamilton, program director of the ARCHES project. ARCHES, part of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, will work with the city to manage the navigation center and provide intensive case management.
Bennett said navigation centers have shown great success in helping people become homeless.
The city looked to established centers such as those in Seattle and Merced County, California.
Eugene’s newly opened River Avenue Navigation Center offers 75 beds and services. It was also created with the majority of funding coming from the Oregon State Legislature and the federal government.
“What I think will be great about this facility is that it will accept everyone,” said Hamilton. “It’s going to have people come in with their pets. It’s going to have people come in with their partners. Those are the main reasons I see people not going to shelters.”
Murals, a dog run and safe sleeping places for 75
The city and Woodburn Construction used ARCHES’ experience working with people in crisis to inform the center’s design. There will be a de-escalation room right at the entrance to help re-center and calm those in a heightened emotional state. On the other side of the lobby, past a colorful mural, will be a bedbug-infested sauna, a hot room where people can place and sanitize their belongings before heading to the shelter.
A commercial kitchen serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a larger day room provides space for participants for activities such as art therapy, a computer station, and pet therapy.
Laundry service, showers and bathrooms, along with a dog run, are planned for the building.
Hamilton said 75 beds fit in the long room on the south side of the building. Each bed has a lockable storage space and separate rooms are available for light sleepers, people with sleep apnea and those traumatized by communal shelters.
Beyond the bedroom comes an entire wing dedicated to behavioral health services.
People on both sides of the political spectrum have long cited poor access to Oregon’s mental health services as one of the causes of the homelessness crisis. But the state is struggling to expand mental health services.
Hamilton said the navigation center will be modified to meet this need. People can get behavioral health therapy, group therapy, connect with substance use, enroll in the Oregon Health Plan, and get medical help. A secondary entry into the behavioral health side of the center means people can continue to receive treatment after they leave the shelter.
Housing remains an essential need, but simply placing traumatized people or people in need of treatment directly into permanent housing may slow some people’s ability to emerge from homelessness, she said. Without these stabilization services, people can be traumatized again and end up back on the streets.
Building the services into the navigation center gives them a head start on becoming self-sufficient, she said.
Section 8 vouchers, permanent supportive housing such as the the city’s Redwood Crossings and affordable housing units could be next steps to lift people out of homelessness in the region.
“We’re going to make all those housing programs more successful because we’re starting that stabilization process early,” Hamilton said. “This is just kind of a gateway, that breath of ‘I can relax, I can breathe, I’m having this moment’ — and then we put them into homes.”
The project has received no formal backlash from neighbors, including several businesses and apartment complexes.
Hamilton said they’ve tried to emphasize that it’s not a drop-in place like the ARCHES Day Center downtown. It is operated and staffed 24 hours a day with a curfew. People won’t be queuing outside to use its services, and many neighbors may not even realize it has the capacity to house 75 people.
ARCHES will draw from a region’s coordinated participant list to decide who can stay in the shelter.
Hamilton said there are currently 776 unprotected people on the list. Her goal is to have people stay in the navigation center in cohorts, moving about 100 to 200 people a year through the center.
A long-awaited project is delayed
City leaders and advocates have been talking about opening a navigation center for years.
An influx of federal, state and county funds pushed that idea into practice.
Sources of funding for the purchase, construction and operation of the Navigation Center include $3 million from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, $3 million from Marion County, $1.9 million from the Oregon Legislature for the construction and $5 million from the Oregon Legislature for two years of operation and construction contingencies.
No general city funds have been used for the project. Despite the longstanding need in the community, city officials said funding would not have been possible had it not been for one-time funds from the city, county and federal government to pay for construction and two years of operation.
The city bought the property on 1185 22nd St. SE in July 2021.
Knox Busch said the property was once an office building but had fallen into disrepair.
In order to function as a navigation center, it had to be gutted and renovated to meet safety and land use requirements.
Knox Busch said this one-time renovation project included a sprinkler system, a fire alarm system, the addition of a kitchen, laundry, bathroom and shower facilities; construction of a wall to separate day and evening space; space to manage pest control, a backup generator and the reconfiguration of office spaces to provide on-site mental health services.
The city’s initial plan to open the center last winter was thrown into disarray when staff learned how complicated it would be to convert the dilapidated building into a livable, functional navigation center. After purchase, the estimated cost and time required for construction increased, Knox Busch said.
The city instead used the property as a temporary warm-up last winter and wanted to open the full navigation center this winter.
Construction started in August.
According to city officials, construction will be completed no later than February 2023.