Public testimony favored alternatives to outright ban

Conestoga huts, like the ones seen above, were the preferred solutions of two former Keizer elected officials.

By the end of the Keizer City Council meeting Monday, Jan. 6, councilors had heard from those on both sides regarding a ban on camping by homeless people – and they were unswayed by a Keizer mother who hasn’t seen her homeless veteran son in five years and a local pastor who once lived among the homeless in Keizer. 

The council passed the ban on camping on sidewalks, public property and public rights-of-way unanimously. 

Sandra McCullough-Jones testified that her son, a Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran was so traumatized by the experience it led to substance abuse and, later, homelessness. 

“I ask you to remember that you are elected to serve all people and that includes our homeless neighbors. I ask that you not give into fear you feel and hear about homeless people. You owe it to us, as elected officials, to consider the moral consequences of doing nothing, and the moral benefit of working hard to find viable solutions to this heartbreaking condition in our community,” McCullough-Jones said. “If you do choose to support this ordinance, what are you going to do for better services in this community?”

In Salem, the city council allocated $200,000 to establish a temporary camping site on city-owned property the same night it passed a similar camping ban. Keizer contributes $5,000 a year to the Mid-Willamette Valley Homeless Initiative and Mayor Cathy Clark is a member of its development council. 

Jonathan Thompson, president of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce, reviewed some of the efforts chamber members make to be involved in needs of the homeless and then said the chamber supported the ordinance. 

“Some members have invested thousands in cleaning up property and damages, others have had to clean up used needles and spent fentanyl patches,” Thompson said. “We see this ordinance as a necessary tool for Keizer police and support its passage.”

Richard Walsh, a Keizer attorney and former city councilor, said he would rather the city focus on alternative measures rather than banning tent camping. 

“This is a crisis and its of humanitarian proportions. It’s been dealt with in various ways, but few places have said you are outlawed,” Walsh said. 

Walsh directed the council to the possibility of establishing conestoga huts, micro-shelters that give those experiencing homelessness a hard-shelled insulated tent in which to stow possessions and sleep. 

The cost of a single conestoga hut is approximately $2,500 and running a 20-shelter site is estimated to be around $50,000 per year. 

“I will buy [a hut] to start this off. It’s better to have some individual dignity and a path to re-assimilate into society,” Walsh said. 

Mark Coutis, vice president of the West Salem Neighborhood Association, suggested the former Fairview Training Center and Hillcrest Youth Correctional Facility properties in south Salem as a space that could repurposed to assist homeless people facing a variety of challenges. 

Kevin Dial, a retired veteran who works with several local veteran-focused, non-profit entities, said “It’s going to take someone with the initiative to focus on it (homelessness) as the hill they will die on.”

Jimmy Jones of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which oversees several homeless outreach and rehousing programs, said the effect of the camping ban in Salem has not driven more residents to seek services. 

“When we had the concentration around the ARCHES office, the utilization of services was high. The [anti-camping] ordinance pushed some of the population farther and farther away. The iron law is that whenever government tries to enact a punitive law, it hinders the services trying to reach them,” Jones said. 

Former Keizer mayor Lore Christopher echoed Walsh’s call for pursuing alternatives and added that banning camping in commercial zones might be a more effective route to achieve what the city hoped to achieve. 

Former city councilor and a candidate for the Republican nomination in the 2020 race for U.S. Congress Amy Ryan Courser said the ban was a matter of keeping the city safe. 

“There are over 700 non-profits in Salem-Keizer. The people I’ve encountered have not been willing to utilize those services. There are choices being made. It’s important to remember that we have a moral obligation to the residents for a safe and clean city,” Courser said.