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'This place is a godsend': New men's homeless shelter gives Salem's bed count a needed boost

After clearing homeless camps, city officials recently promised close to 770 new shelter beds would open soon. This month, close to 140 of those beds came online.

SALEM, Ore. — With modern construction, big windows and wide open communal spaces, the Union Gospel Mission's (UGM) new men's shelter opened in Northeast Salem last week. It replaces their decades old facility, which sits a few blocks away along Commercial Street NE. With 284 beds, the new space doubles the mission's shelter capacity.

One spot belongs to Leon Small Bear.

“I looked out my tent window and on the side of a bank, it looked like I seen an angel just sitting there, watching over me,” said Small Bear, during an interview on Wednesday, July 28.

RELATED: Citing decline in cases, Salem reverses COVID policy of letting homeless camp in city parks

The 39-year-old Nebraska native was homeless in Salem, battling addiction, until a couple months ago. He learned his foster father had died and came to UGM for help. Little did he know, the new mission, at 777 Commercial Street NE, was getting ready to open. It came with mental health and addiction treatment services on-site.

“This place is a Godsend,” said Small Bear. “I'm so happy for the state of Oregon, the city of Salem.”

His point about the city speaks to a broad need. Over the last few months, citing safety and environmental concerns, officials have cleared camps from Salem's parks and along its interstates.

RELATED: ODOT starts to clear large homeless camp along I-5 in Salem

But the question remained, where were campers supposed to go? Salem has less than 400 shelter beds available year-round, and most were already full.

Amid the sweeps, officials made a big promise: close to 770 more shelter beds would open later this year.

This month, the new UGM men’s mission brought more than 100 of those additional shelter beds officially online. The 57,000 square foot facility came with a total price tag of $15 million. Federal and local grants covered a couple million dollars. The rest was paid for by private money.

In a statement Wednesday, Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett wrote:

"This expansion is a win-win for Salem, with special thanks to the UGM leadership, and those in our community who continue to serve individuals experiencing homelessness. Projects like the UGM expansion are the way forward, as Salem works to increase shelter capacity and add more housing options for our community members. The City has 8.1 million dollars allocated in this year’s budget to support housing and sheltering through multiple City supported projects."

Staff in the new facility are just as energized.

“The need for homelessness is way greater than what the union gospel mission can handle on its own,” said Myron Jones, director of the men’s mission and men’s ministries. “But we want to be a part of the players that will impact that homelessness issue in our community.”

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