Michael Little, 41, sits on his bed at the Union Gospel Mission's new mission at 777 Commercial Street N.E. on July 27, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Michael Little has good memories of his time at the Union Gospel Mission shelter in downtown Salem.

But the 41-year-old admits it wasn’t an ideal place to live for six months. Pieces of the building were falling apart, he said, and the lack of air conditioning made warm summer days challenging.

“It had a distinctive smell in some areas,” he said.

Little is among the men who relocated one week ago to the new men’s mission at 777 Commercial St. N.E., a three-story, 55,000 square foot building that will more than double the number of shelter beds available for men to almost 300.

That includes 70 beds for men like Little in the mission’s New Life Fellowship program, a Christian drug and alcohol recovery program that takes about 18 months to complete.

His third-floor room has four new single beds and large windows overlooking Northeast Commercial Street. The light is a sharp contrast to the old mission, which many clients and employees referred to as “dungeon-y” for its lack of windows.

“I plan on being here as long as it takes,” Little said.

The building’s third floor is reserved for men in the New Life Fellowship program, giving those new to sobriety their own space separated from the shelter dorms where men who may still be using drugs or alcohol stay.

Myron Jones, Union Gospel Mission's director of men's mission, stands in a dorm room for emergency shelter in UGM's new building on July 27, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

That’s among the advantages of the new building, said Myron Jones, the director of men’s mission. It supports men in recovery “so they’re not triggered by the smell of alcohol, the smell of drugs,” while still giving people who need a place off the streets somewhere to sleep.

Mission employees said the larger space will let them serve more people and expand programs.

The ground floor includes a day area with couches and chairs for people to rest and relax, and a larger kitchen and dining room for meal service. There’s a “hot room” where people’s belongings can be heated when they come in to kill bedbugs or other pests.

The building’s ground floor has a health clinic where they plan to offer appointments for basic care, said Mark Hunter, UGM’s development director. A mental health counselor is already working there.

A larger kitchen means more spots available in the mission’s culinary program, which trains men staying at the mission and women living at Simonka Place, UGM’s women’s shelter. Over six months, participants learn basic kitchen skills enabling them to work in restaurants, like knife skills and commercial kitchen operations.

Hunter said the old mission kitchen had space for about three trainees. Now, he said, they’ll be able to serve “as many as we can recruit.”

The second floor has dorms providing emergency shelter for men. Jones said some just need a place to stay for a few nights, while others are enrolled in programs to help them work on social security applications or get health care needs taken care of.

The shelter doesn’t require sobriety for a bed or drug test residents, Jones said, so long as they’re not disrupting other guests.

“We want to get them off the streets - that’s the primary goal,” he said.

Before the move, the mission routinely filled its 125 beds in the winter months, even with mats on the floor to expand space. Covid restrictions further cut the shelter’s capacity last winter.

With the added beds, Jones expects UGM won’t have to turn anyone seeking shelter away during Salem’s coldest months.

One week after the move, about 70 beds are taken at the new mission. Jones expects more men to filter in as word spreads that the new location is open and has space available.

“The more the word gets out that we are open, our numbers will increase,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: rachel@salemreporter.com or 503-575-1241.

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