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Salem homeless crisis affects Chemeketa campus

Individuals experiencing homelessness take shelter under an awning in downtown Salem. 
Photo by Chris Ward

In recent months, Chemeketa’s Public Safety has seen an uptick in the number of homeless individuals on and around campus. The department is forced to deal with the issue almost daily.

Salem’s homeless crisis has become much more visible in the last year with handfuls of encampments around the downtown area. Public Safety attributes this to various camping bans in certain areas instituted by the Salem City Council in December.

Sheila Lorance, Public Safety’s interim director, said that the issue is common on campus.

“We deal, almost daily, with folks because the bus stops here. So, they get on the bus, and they get off here. We’ve found people sleeping in the buildings at night when we make patrols. Also, in the woods over by Bldg. 50, we find people there. We’ve had tents and camps set up, so it does affect us.”

Speaking on the camping ban, Lorance said, “I think when any time focus is on the folks that are downtown, and they start trying to move them out, that’s what happens. They move out, and this is a long way out from anywhere, services, that type of thing.”

There are a handful of service providers in Salem, which helps homeless individuals find permanent housing. Located downtown near large sidewalk encampments, many individuals find it difficult to seek their services when they’re banned from sheltering nearby.

Finding shelter or a place to pitch a tent isn’t the only dilemma facing Salem’s homeless population. Lack of restrooms is also a problem. Andre Lieccy, a lifelong Salem resident, known in the homeless community as “Big Andy,” has been intermittently homeless for the last 20 years.

“There’s nowhere to go to the bathroom except in doorways or on the streets, you know what I mean? And that’s against the law.”

At a recent city council meeting, councilors voiced the opinion that the crisis is a problem beyond the ability of the city to solve alone and expressed the need for county and state agencies to provide resources.

On Feb. 10, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek told the House of Representatives that Oregon’s housing crisis has reached an emergency level. She is currently studying how this problem could be declared an emergency. Declaring an emergency could mean extra funding to help build shelters and could set aside zoning regulations in that effort. 

Regarding Salem, Kotek also wants to set up “navigation centers,” which would provide shelter and case management to homeless individuals all under the same roof.

A recent count of the homeless population in Salem showed that there are currently 908 homeless individuals without shelter and another 315 homeless individuals living in shelters throughout the city. At the Feb. 10 city council meeting, Nicole Utz, of the Salem Housing Authority, said that there are currently only around 30 shelter spaces available at any given time.

Others at Chemeketa have seen an increased presence of homeless individuals in college buildings. Mayra Guerrero, a student employee at the Bldg. 2 Information Center, said she encounters more homeless people on Saturdays when there are fewer students on campus.

“Some individuals are not all there as far as their mental state of mind, so we do get those that are very aggressive, or they’ll start acting aggressive toward students or just shouting out things, and we’ll have to call Public Safety. On Saturday, we had somebody that looked clearly like they were on something, and they were here trying to use our computers.”

Sitting at the front desk, Guerrero also said she’s seen homeless individuals asking students for money in the building.

“We’ve always dealt with it,” Lorance said. “But, from my understanding, I think we’re seeing a spike this year. It’s a horrible situation, and there’s no place for them to go. There’s no resources, and you can’t just put everybody in jail because they’re homeless.”

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