Kelly Teves, 48, voices her opposition to an idea to ban sitting or lying on city public rights-of-way for most hours of the day. Teves spoke during the first community forum held to discuss the proposal. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)
The first public talks about a divisive proposal to ban sitting or lying on Salem sidewalks for most hours of the day failed expectations for homeless advocates and city officials alike.
Many streamed out of the Union Gospel Mission of Salem on Wednesday night feeling there wasn’t enough time to share opinions on the proposed ordinance.
“Pushing people out of downtown because they lie down to sleep, because they feel safe there in the daytime, is just pushing them to another spot where the police or parks people will ask them to leave because they’re homeless,” said Kelly Teves, a 48-year-old homeless resident.
A second forum is slated for noon, Sept. 13 and Loucks Auditorium, at 585 Liberty St. S.E.
The forum was to be the first time the public could discuss the proposed ordinance, which would go into effect every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., since the idea was first announced in July. Opponents say the ordinance will disproportionately target homeless people.
Of the forum’s 90 minutes, about 30 were set aside for discussion. Most of the time went to presentations from the mission, Salem Housing Authority and the Salem Police Department.
“I was there to hear what the community was thinking about the ordinance,” said Sarah Owens, a downtown resident and an advocate for homeless residents. “I would say maybe one-third of the people who wanted to talk got to talk.”
Besides banning sleeping or lying on public rights-of-way citywide, the ordinance would also ban makeshift structures at all hours and prohibit people from abandoning belongings on public property for more than 24 hours.
A first violation leads to a warning. A second violating leads to expulsion from a certain area — such as Salem’s downtown — although people can still use shelters, day centers and other services. A third violation can lead to a minor criminal charge.
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Urban Development Director Kristin Retherford agreed the forum didn’t succeed. Retherford was supposed to mediate, but a family emergency sent her to Baker City.
“The way it was planned to go is there would be about 30 minutes on those (presentations) — about five minutes each,” she said. “And the rest of the time for question and comments. But if you don’t have a separate facilitator, it’s just really hard to be a panelist and keep things on the timeline.”
“We’re talking about doing a third (forum) because there wasn’t as much opportunity for questions and comments as we’d hoped,” she said.
Retherford said there isn’t a set date for a third forum yet.
After the Wednesday night meeting, many said they didn’t get a clear understanding of how the ordinance worked or how it would be enforced.
“They should have spelled out, point-by-point,” said Bob Francis, a retired minister who volunteers to help the homeless. “That way people could address, point-by-point, what was going on.”
Retherford said that will be a focal point of forums going forward. She said the question-and-answer portions are designed to help people ask questions about what the ordinance does or doesn’t do, and also to hear how people feel about it.
Many homeless people let their feelings be known Wednesday night, saying the ordinance would push them into more dangerous camps. The ordinance, they said, would keep them from places like downtown.
“Where do we get to rest ourselves and feel like it’s OK? I know a number of us sleep with one eye open, thinking that’s the time cops will come in and shoo us out. What do we do? Circumstances beyond our control put is in this situation and we’re not getting any help from the city,” Teves said.
City officials did share about services at the forum. Nicole Utz, administrator of Salem Housing Authority, discussed the city’s Homeless Rental Assistance Program that pays rent and gives case management to people considered “the hardest to house.”
People in attendance heard updates on Union Gospel Mission’s new, upgraded men’s mission. The city is expected to give at least $750,000 in urban renewal dollars to the project.
Salem Police Department Deputy Chief Skip Miller also discussed how, if the ordinance were to pass, officers would use their new authority “compassionately.”
“Everyone in this room, I believe… understands the right to have life and live and have a place to reside and if you don’t have a home that certainly creates a challenge,” he said. “We do know people have the right to sleep. Currently, parks are open all day long. They can sleep in the parks in the daytime, sit in the benches and in the grass.”
When asked Thursday how he felt the forum went, Dan Clem, UGM’s executive director, said the mission was happy to host, but declined to answer whether the forum accomplished what it set out to do.
Owens, the homeless advocate, said she wanted to see more information presented at the next meeting.
“The city just didn’t seem prepared for what they were trying to do,” she said. “I hope they get their act together for the 13th.”
Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @TroyWB.