SALEM, OR (KPTV) — A month after the city of Salem banned the homeless from tent camping on public property, city councilors Tuesday night voted to consider reversing course and once again allow tents.
The twist was part of a resolution declaring a “state of emergency” regarding an influx of people camping around the city’s downtown core.
The unanimous vote included nearly doubling capacity at a women’s shelter from 10 beds to 19 and allowing car camping on a limited and regulated basis.
But councilors voted to make two major changes to the original resolution. In addition to exploring lifting the camping ban, the council dropped the proposal to temporarily use city-owned Pringle Hall as a shelter for the remainder of winter.
Usage of the community center, located off Church Street, was met with criticism from area neighbors who told the council they already felt unsafe by a recent uptick in homeless traffic and related crime and sanitation issues.
Neighbors spoke of being attacked by homeless individuals, finding people sleeping in their yards and property and having their cars broken into.
Councilor Chris Hoy proposed the original resolution and motioned to make the amendments to drop Pringle Hall and explore lifting the camping ban.
Hoy said he changed his mind after hearing that neighbors believed it would make the neighborhood worse, and expert homeless advocate Jimmy Jones warned opening Pringle Hall wouldn’t make much of an impact in terms of reducing homeless visibility.
“It doesn’t make any sense to do it,” Hoy said.
Jones, who serves as the executive director of Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, told city councilors he wasn’t surprised to see the homeless spreading into neighborhoods after the camping ban took effect.
“We warned this would happen,” Jones said.
Councilors asked Jones numerous questions, including what he would do to solve the problem.
Jones said he would lift the camping ban and invest in a low-barrier shelter to house the most vulnerable and struggling homeless.
During the meeting, Mayor Chuck Bennett said a lift on the camping ban “would be foolish” and “I think we’ve lost our way on what we’re trying to do.”
The council enacted the ban back in December, in an effort to cleanup unsanitary areas and appease an angry business community worried about safety and losing customers.
After banning tent camping, city councilors pledged to open more warming shelters but that never happened.
For the homeless sleeping on cardboard, with blankets piled over them, it’s been a tough transition in the middle of winter. They told FOX 12 they miss their tents and are tired of waiting in limbo.
“There’s no structures allowed so the wind, everything – you have to find little ways to try to keep your body from getting cold,” a homeless woman named Robin said.
Robin said she is desperate to get into a shelter, but she doesn’t want to be separated from her boyfriend, adding that most shelters available separate men from women.
The amended resolution passed unanimously, but not without reservations from three councilors who said they would have preferred to open Pringle Hall and help as many people as possible stay warm and dry. Another resolution to separately open the community center as a temporary shelter failed.
FOX 12 spoke to Mayor Bennett following the vote.
“The one that I’m concerned about is reinstating a camping ban that we just did – that comes across as the council is very indecisive on the issue – that they’re very uncomfortable with getting people off our streets who really have no business there,” said Mayor Bennett.
The city council will once again take up the issue at its Jan. 27 meeting.
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