Oregon started 2020 with a shortage of more than 5,800 emergency shelter beds. The wildfires, pandemic and economic instability that followed only worsened the homelessness crisis.
But an unprecedented program — 19 hotels and motels transformed into shelters using $74.7 million in state funds approved by the Oregon State Legislature — is set to house wildfire victims, stabilize chronically homeless people and keep people from dying on the streets, advocates say.
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Project Turnkey will add 865 housing units, increasing the state's emergency shelter supply by 20%, said Max Williams, the CEO of Oregon Community Foundation, the agency tasked with distributing the funds from the state.
This month, the former Super 8 motel in northeast Salem is set to open its doors as one the 19 Project Turnkey shelters. The Center for Hope & Safety was also selected to receive a Project Turnkey grant for domestic violence survivors in Salem.
The shelter — operated by The ARCHES Project, a division of the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency — is designed to not only provide housing but also connect residents to supportive services for those displaced by the wildfires and living unsheltered.
“Our world changed after the wildfires struck Santiam Canyon," ARCHES program director Ashley Hamilton said. "We experienced the loss of housing and community, as well as a sense of belonging and security. We can now offer a safe place for people, access services for daily living and achieve long-term housing and stability.”
Opening Dec. 13
On Dec. 13, the ARCHES Inn will welcome 24 people and families impacted by the 2020 Labor Day fires in the Santiam Canyon and those experiencing homelessness.
The capacity of the 80-room former motel at 1288 Hawthorne Ave. NE is expected to increase in the future as restoration work on the building's second and third floors begins in early 2022.
The project cost $5.9 million and was mostly funded by Project Turnkey with additional funding by the City of Salem and Oregon Housing and Community Services.
Hamilton said many of the rooms were move-in ready. The nonprofit added a pantry with goods from Marion Polk Food Share and will provide regular hot meals for residents. There are free laundry services on site and pets are welcome.
She said future plans for the site include a commercial kitchen, in-room kitchenettes, new flooring and a "bed bug sauna" to clean belongings prior to move-in.
The renovations will help make the building "less of a hotel and more of a home," Hamilton said.
The ARCHES Inn will serve as a long-term 90-day emergency shelter with the goal of moving unhoused people into stable housing. Residents can stay longer than 90 days, however. Medical, mental and behavioral health services are available in-house through JD Health & Wellness.
Megan Loeb, program officer with the Oregon Community Foundation said having these services on-site is critical to success.
"That's providing ease of access to people, allowing them to have the services and support they need to stabilize and to decompress and then to find their way to permanent housing," she said.
Loeb and Williams said each of the 19 hotels in Project Turnkey are unique to the area they serve. A shelter on the southern Oregon Coast, an area with a high rate of veteran homelessness, serves veterans. Others serve domestic violence victims or those recently released from prison.
The Inn in Salem will prioritize families, children, couples and individuals displaced by the Santiam Canyon wildfires. After wildfire victims are served, the site will shift focus to sheltering adults experiencing chronic homelessness or who are medically fragile or vulnerable to victimization.
Continuation of assistance work
The concept is not new to the Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency, which operated temporary hotels for wildfire victims and those at higher risk of COVID-19 complications throughout 2020 and 2021.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the agency has spent as much as $13,000 a night on motel vouchers to help homeless residents isolate themselves safely from COVID-19 or recover from chronic medical conditions.
At the program's peak, Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency Director Jimmy Jones said, they were sheltering almost 200 people a night.
Jones recounted one of his darkest moments in the past year — when he found out a client living outside with a MRSA-infected foot had died. Two days later, the ice storm knocked out power to the majority of the county and left many cold, hungry and in the dark.
Jones said he and Hamilton vowed to find a way to make the hotelling program work.
"This motel that you see in front of us is just one brick in the road to that day when we get to the point where we can look back … and say we have finally reached a point where every person in our community, every homeless individual has a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in, food on the table with warmth, light and heat," Jones said. "People need not die outside suffering under these inhumane conditions."
Hamilton said 500 households were sheltered through the hotelling program. But the program was always at the mercy of funding and room availability. Now, with the ARCHES Inn, they can provide reliable, long-term services to the community.
Hamilton said hundreds of wildfire victims still need services. Fifteen people have already been identified to move in to the Inn in December.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown said the need for services like the Inn was immense in the region.
"People in Marion and Polk counties have been certainly hit with our fair share: the Santiam Canyon fires of 2020, the President's Day ice storm and wind storm in 2021 and the health and economic impacts of a worldwide pandemic," Brown said. "And obviously, even before the pandemic, we were grappling with an affordable housing crisis that continues to this day."
She said sheltering programs are a drop in the bucket but a critical step in the quest to end homelessness.
"The Arches Inn is a perfect example of what is possible when we all work together to tackle seemingly impossible tasks," Brown said. "One step at a time. One person. One family. Giving people hope, help and a warm place to sleep in at night."
Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett said the city was proud to support the project.
Bennett recounted meeting a man earlier the day who was housed through the city's first rental assistance program.
"He's got a home, he's got a job and he's moving on with his life," he said. "That's a story here in Salem that we want to tell."
How to help, or get help
For those wanting to help the homeless community, volunteers are needed for the winter's warming shelters, shower stations, sandwich making and other projects. More information is online at mwvcaa.org/programs/the-arches-project/volunteer/.
Donations also help fund last-minute move-in needs and welcome baskets and can be made online at mwvcaa.kindful.com/. Donors can choose to donate directly to the ARCHES Inn on the drop-down menu.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Shelter opens at former Salem motel for wildfire victims, homeless