This insight is part of a continuing series of informative best practices and shout outs to recognize innovative approaches state and local governments have adopted to help them manage through the current COVID-19 crisis. Thanks to the City of Salem, Oregon for allowing us to share this material.
Salem, Oregon, like many capital cities, has been experiencing a growth in its homeless population in recent years. Once COVID-19 spread to Oregon as part of the global pandemic, the city needed to take immediate action to safeguard the health of its homeless population, maintain sanitation citywide and help provide opportunities for social distancing.
To help ameliorate the homeless situation during COVID-19, Salem City Manager Steve Powers suspended the restriction on camping in the unimproved areas of two of the city’s largest parks, Wallace Marine and Cascades Gateway, until June 30. This permits people who are unsheltered to relocate from the more crowded downtown streets to the parks, which allows individuals to sustain social distancing requirements. During this time, people experiencing homelessness can maintain campsites in groups of 10 or fewer, while observing all other ordinances and regulations governing the parks. The city even installed temporary handwashing stations, portable toilets and waste removal services. Additionally, the city has purchased portable storage units for personal belongings.
Salem residents have also exhibited stewardship towards the homeless during this difficult time. Volunteer community organizations have rallied to support the campers, providing tents, supplies and donated food. Individual citizens have also been delivering meals to the homeless.
To incentivize the campers to maintain clean campsites and abide by the parks’ sanitation requirements, the city implemented a “Cash for Trash” program that rewards campers with $10 gift cards for maintaining sanitary conditions. Municipal Code Enforcement staff have been re-stationed from their regular duties to provide oversight of the homeless camping areas as well as educate the campers on the importance of social distancing, personal hygiene and observance of the leash laws. The Salem police department is also proactively increasing their presence in the area, including patrolling residential neighborhoods adjacent to the parks to allay concerns expressed by the neighbors.
Through this program, not only is the city of Salem continuing to keep residents safe, including the homeless population, but crime rates have reportedly declined in some of these areas.