A first-of-its-kind shelter is coming to Salem. Here's what it will provide
More than 1,800 people in the Salem area are experiencing homelessness — a number that has continued to grow in recent years as the economy struggles and housing costs spike.
And while the number of shelter beds has increased in recent years, there are still more people sleeping in tents, cars and on sidewalks than there are available beds.
Local advocates have highlighted the dire need for mental health care, transitional housing and low-barrier shelters that allow pets and couples and don't demand sobriety or participation in religious programs.
Salem's first-ever navigation center is designed to address those critical needs in the community. The 75-bed low-barrier center is set to open this winter. City officials and advocates 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 on to 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 an extensive undertaking.
City officials said work didn't start until this summer after they acquired the last bit of funding needed to pay for construction.
"The City didn’t put out the bid until we had the funds available to pay for the resulting construction work," city spokeswoman Courtney Knox Busch said. "We were awarded the last piece of funding, the $3 million grant from Marion County, in June 2022."
Before putting out a bid in July, city officials estimated the construction would cost $4.17 million. The contract was awarded to the lowest bidder, Woodburn Construction Company, which submitted a bid for $3.83 million. The city accepted the bid.
Construction began in August. Meanwhile, the need in the community has continued to grow.
"We understand this need is top of mind for Salem — community members, neighbors, business owners, our elected officials," city homelessness liaison Gretchen Bennett said. "It's a top priority and this is so essentially 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 partner with the city to manage the navigation center and provide intensive case management.
Bennett said navigation centers have shown strong success in helping people exit homelessness.
The city looked to established centers like those in Seattle and Merced County, California.
Eugene's recently opened River Avenue Navigation Center offers 75 beds along with services. It, too, was created with the bulk of the funding coming from the Oregon State Legislature and the federal government.
"What I think is going to be great about this facility is it's going to accept anyone," Hamilton said. "It's going to let people come in with their pets. It's going to let people come in with their partners. Those are the top reasons why I see people not going into shelter environments."
Murals, a dog run and safe sleeping spots for 75
The city and Woodburn Construction used ARCHES' experience working with people in crisis to inform the design of the center. A de-escalation room will be right off the entrance to help those in a heightened emotional state re-center and calm down. Across the lobby, past a colorful mural, will be a bed bug sauna, a hot room for people to place and sanitize their belongings before moving them into the shelter.
A commercial kitchen will serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a larger day room will give participants space for activities like art therapy, a computer station and companion service animal therapy.
Laundry services, showers and bathrooms, along with a dog run, are planned for the building.
Hamilton said 75 beds will fit into the long room on the building's south side. Each bed will have lockable storage, and separate rooms are available for light sleepers, people with sleep apnea and those traumatized by congregate shelter environments.
Past the sleeping room will be an entire wing devoted to behavioral health services.
People on both sides of the political spectrum have long-cited Oregon's poor access to mental health care as one of the drivers of the homelessness crisis. But the state has struggled to increase mental health services.
Hamilton said the navigation center will be tailored to address this need. People can get behavioral health therapy, group therapy, connect to substance use treatment, enroll in the Oregon Health Plan and get medical help. A secondary entrance to the behavioral health side of the center means people can continue getting treatment after they move on from the shelter.
Housing remains a vital need, but simply putting traumatized people or people needing treatment directly into permanent housing can delay some people's ability to transition out of homelessness, she said. Without these stabilization services, people can end up retraumatized and back on the streets.
Building the services into the navigation center will give them a head start on becoming self-sufficient, she said.
Section 8 vouchers, permanent supportive housing like the city's Redwood Crossings and affordable housing units can be next steps to transition people out of homelessness in the region.
"We're going to make all of those housing programs more successful because we're gonna start that stabilization process early," Hamilton said. "This is just kind of that gateway, that breath of, 'I can relax, I can breathe, I have this moment,' — and then we put them into housing."
The project has received no formal pushback from neighbors, which include several businesses and apartment complexes.
Hamilton said they have worked to stress that it is not a drop-in spot like the ARCHES Day Center downtown. It's managed and staffed 24 hours a day with a curfew. People won't be lined up outside to use the services, and many neighbors might not even realize it has the capacity to shelter 75 people.
ARCHES will draw from a region's coordinated entry list to decide who can stay at the shelter.
Hamilton said 776 unsheltered people are currently on the list. Her goal is to have people stay at the navigation center in cohorts, moving roughly 100 to 200 people through the center a year.
A long-awaited project hits delays
Talk of opening a navigation center has been ongoing for several years among city leaders and advocates.
An influx of federal, state and county funds pushed that idea into reality.
The funding sources for the purchase of the property, construction and operations 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 construction and $5 million from the Oregon Legislature for two years of operation and construction contingency.
No city general funds have been used for the project. Despite the longtime need in the community, city officials said funding it would not have been possible if not for the one-time funds from the city, county and federal government to pay for the construction and two years of operation.
The city purchased the property at 1185 22nd St. SE in July 2021.
Knox Busch said the property was once an office building but had fallen into disrepair.
To function as a navigation center, it needed to be stripped down and renovated to meet safety and land use requirements.
Knox Busch said this one-time expense renovation project included a fire 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 back-up generator and the reconfiguration of office areas to provide on-site mental health services.
The city's initial plan to open the center last winter was dashed when staff discovered how complex it would be to convert the rundown building into a livable, functional navigation center. After purchase, the estimated cost and the time needed for construction increased, Knox Busch said.
The city instead used the property as a temporary warming shelter last winter and set its sights on opening the full navigation center this winter.
Construction began in August.
According to city officials, construction will be completed no later than February 2023.