SALEM, Ore. — The city of Salem quietly reached a major milestone this week by housing 100 people who, by federal standards, are deemed “chronically homeless”, meaning they’ve lived unsheltered for more than three years.
Aaron, who didn’t want to give a last name, is one of the 100.
He’d been living on the streets of Salem since 2014.
“I’d just gotten out of prison, then was at a transition house,” he said. “The subsidy ran up on that… and then instead of staying at the shelter, I started camping.”
Aaron said, while living on the streets, he began using drugs.
“Mainly meth, marijuana, alcohol,” he recalled.
That lasted years. Eventually, he got clean, and earlier this year he heard the city was looking to help those who many deemed “the hardest to house”.
Aaron gave it a shot.
“I went into see a counselor and got evaluated and was sent over to the [Salem] Housing Authority, where I would continue to make weekly meetings until they placed me,” he said.
That placement came two months ago, via the program he’d heard about.
The city’s Homeless Rental Assistance Program, while new, had been picking up steam.
The progress came thanks to SHA employees, tasked with finding potential clients in the city’s homeless camps and finding landlords willing to house ex-cons, recovering addicts, people battling mental illness and, in many cases, aging adults with no income.
Lead housing stability coordinator Sonya Ryland said Thursday the landlord search took, “…a lot of landlord relationship building, a lot of trust. We started with obviously our first landlord and built from there. We're up to 23.”
Once in housing, said Ryland, the city covers rent, utilities and costs for a year or until the person starts making money, at which point they begin paying their own bills.
Case managers also check in with the clients every week.
At the end of the year, each client receives a Section 8 voucher.
Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett began pushing for a new way to help the city’s homeless, shortly after taking office in January of 2017.
He proudly describes the rental assistance program, complete with its slow and steady pace, as the “opposite of a silver bullet.”
“We're not doing tent camps. We're not opening jails. You know each of the things I see some other communities trying to do… self-governing tent camps,” he said. “We're not doing that here in Salem. We're working with our landlords to put people into real life apartments.”
The city set aside close to $1.4 million in public funds to pay for the program’s first year.
That’s in addition to a $150,000 grant from the Meyer Memorial Trust Foundation and $50,000 from Salem Health.
Mayor Bennett said the price tag is worth it when you tally up other costs often tied to a city’s housing crisis.
“Policing costs, ambulance trips we provide the ambulance service, “ he said. “Getting them housed begins to resolve those costs.”
He added he fully expects the city to continue funding the program for years to come.
Aaron admits the two months since he got housing have been a rollercoaster.
He still doesn't’ have a bed, in part because he’s not used to one but also because free ones tend to come infested with bed bugs.
He’s added he’s had to end relationships with people he considered close friends on the streets.
Still, Aaron hopes the program does stick around, so it can help others who are where he was years ago.
“Stick it out and wait. That's what I tell people who haven't been housed yet,” he said, sitting at his kitchen table Thursday. “Stick it out because it's a good opportunity.”