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'We failed to communicate': Salem city council moves forward with homeless village plans despite backlash

Faced with mounting neighborhood backlash and newly discovered flooding concerns, the city council Monday opted not to reconsider the site, approved last month.
Credit: KGW
Lot along Wallace Road Northwest that was being considered for Salem's homeless village

SALEM, Ore. — Faced with mounting neighborhood backlash and newly discovered flooding concerns, the city of Salem is moving forward with a plan to place a tiny house village on an empty lot along Wallace Road Northwest.

The city council Monday opted not to reconsider the plan, approved last month. Councilor Jim Lewis, whose district houses the lot in question, had suggested council reevaluate the decision.

“I believe we failed to communicate well enough to be able to move forward with this decision. For those that need to place blame, I’ll take it,” he said at Thursday’s meeting. Lewis added, when staff first approached him about placing a village in his district he “… failed to say anything about reaching out to the community.”

As the Statesman Journal first reported, the city-owned lot is located at 2700 Wallace Road Northwest. It sits between two apartment complexes and less than a quarter mile from an elementary school and a retirement community.

RELATED: City scraps one of three sites for sanctioned homeless villages in Portland

Amid a housing crisis, city staff moved forward with the plan quickly. The city’s official state of emergency surrounding homelessness legally allows officials to cut through bureaucratic red tape in an effort to get people housed. In this case, neighbors told KGW that meant they were left in the dark.

“The other apartments next to us wasn't notified. The school around us wasn't notified. Families around us weren't notified,” said Adam Lidren, who lives in an apartment complex near the lot.

At a public forum earlier this month, residents of the retirement community Salemtowne packed the complex’s clubhouse, aiming signs that read “No” at city leaders on stage.

Credit: Luanne Whitaker

“I heard a comment from somebody that they thought because we're elderly, that we would just take it and stay in our little complex,” said Linda Trussel, who lives in the complex with her husband Larry. “But it affects everybody.”

By failing to notify the community, Lidren added, city officials made an avoidable error: they voted to place a village on a property that often floods.

Councilor Lewis confirmed to KGW, via email, that staff were now investigating that issue.

“And they're backtracking now to cover their butts because they approved it without getting the expectation now around how everyone else feels,” Lidren said.

The vow to open a village, with federal COVID aid, comes amid an ongoing struggle to address homelessness in Salem. According to the Statesman Journal, an estimated 1,500 people are currently experiencing homelessness in the area. A 2019 Point-In-Time count tallied 1,095 people in Marion and Polk counties.

KGW has covered efforts to quell the impacts of camping, including massive efforts by the city to clear people from parks. Officials say shelters are overcrowded, but they add hundreds of new beds are coming online.

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

“This place is a godsend,” said Small Bear, a man who recently moved into the Union Gospel Mission, one of the city’s newest men’s shelters. “I'm so happy for the state of Oregon, the city of Salem.”