ARCHES Program Manager Ashley Hamilton and Ken Houghton an outreach specialist, speak with a homeless resident in 2018.

Among all the praise for heroism of first responders during the COVID-19, it can be easy to lose sight of all who are worthy of such honors.

Ashley Hamilton, program director of the ARCHES, knows that the organization’s veterans and new employees deserve a share of that acclaim.

“We’ve had to do a fair share of modifying programs to make sure employees and clients are safe, but we’ve been very lucky. Everyone kept showing up for work and then we were able to add more people in most of our programs,” Hamilton said.

While ARCHES is tasked primarily with supporting homeless residents by its parent organization, the Community Action Agency, its mission shifted to homelessness prevention in the past year when it was tapped to distribute money for state and federal programs. Hamilton has to establish and staff an entire call center for the effort.

“I’m proud to say that we’ve been able to distribute more that $5.6 million to people struggling to make their rents and mortgages, and now we’re expecting a third influx of funding,” Hamilton said.

The call center is still fielding about 1,500 calls a day.

The funding assuredly kept many families from collapsing into homelessness, but for those living unsheltered, the visibility of homelessness has changed during the pandemic. When camping and sidewalk sleeping bans swept through city councils just before the pandemic, the effect was to push the population further from where services are available in downtown Salem and into tent cities under overpasses, alongside major thoroughfares and popping up with increasing frequency on a seemingly daily basis.

While a point-in-time count won’t take place until this month, Hamilton is sure the numbers have grown.

“We’ve seen a lot of people whose housing was already tenuous, maybe they were couch-surfing, and end up on the streets. When the wildfires happened in the Santiam Canyon, we also absorbed a lot of the homeless population that was living there,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton is unsure of how the increased visibility will impact the local communities. The circumstances can invoke greater empathy, anger or simply frustration.

“Everyone has a take on how visibility impacts homelessness. Typically, concerns stem from humanitarian, economic or environmental impacts of homelessness. As an organization, we haven’t arrived firmly at one interpretation over another because we try to understand them all,” Hamilton said.

The Salem-Keizer area’s homeless population has fared better than expected during the COVID-19 pandemic with relatively minor outbreaks when they do occur, but concern is growing again.

“The [COVID] fears come in waves, but we’ve been lucky,” Hamilton said. “The primary threat is that almost everyone living unsheltered has a compromised immune system and medical fragility.”

A positive aspect of what’s occurred is that more people are living in “rudimentary” shelters – rather than entirely unsheltered – than ever before, she said. When ARCHES and other organizations had to reduce capacity at shelters and warming centers, it began passing out more tents and tarps, along with sleeping bags, to make up for some of the losses.

While homelessness prevention efforts were a success, it's also an example of how a shifting mission continues to allow a certain segment of the area’s homeless population to continue without the aid needed. It’s not uncommon to hear that a homeless person needs to simply “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” but some homeless residents never had boots to begin with. They were born into extreme poverty or simply suffered unthinkable acts that led to PTSD and an inability to make a way out or up.

While program funders are often eager to establish programs for other forms of PTSD, such as veterans or teen runaways, the chronically homeless remain at the bottom of the funding pool.

“The issue is we are never prioritizing that investment, and then something new comes in and they fall further behind in line,” Hamilton said. “It’s a huge investment because for those individuals that have lived on the streets for 10, 20 or 30 years, they often need housing, mental health care, physical health care and substance abuse treatment. The costs are astronomical compared to helping pay someone’s rent, but we haven’t rounded the corner as a community to prioritize those needs.”

Hamilton said much of the current rise in the homeless population can be attributed to situational factors like the loss of income, exacerbated rent burdens or loss of the space an individual once inhabited on a semi-regular basis.

Despite all the challenges of the past 10 months, ARCHES has continued to assist homeless populations in ways that defy expectation.

The organization provided more than 150 households 12-week stays in hotels to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, opened the area’s first permanent supportive housing unit in partnership with the Salem Housing Authority, opened a veteran’s transitional home with the first beds dedicated to female veterans between Vancouver, Wash., and Eugene, increased outreach personnel to the point where major encampments are being visited once a week and in a wider geographic area, opened its day center where clients can get a hot meal, wash clothes and take showers, and is planning to reinstate its mobile shower program by February.

“We have done so many great things, but we’re mindful that we operate through a humanitarian lens. There is still so much suffering. I know it’s what drives me every day and I’m sure it's the same for many of our employees. We’re still losing lives and we're still seeing some of the worst depths of the human experience,” Hamilton said.