Housing leaders and elected officials gathered in Salem Tuesday to celebrate the much-anticipated opening of a new homeless shelter that is part of a new state program to buy and renovate defunct motels.
Despite a tone of triumph over the model, speakers at the grand opening event agreed that the state’s homelessness problem is still far from a resolution as many Oregonians continue to die sleeping on the street.
And while the new Salem facility has added much-needed shelter capacity, there are still questions about its operation long-term.
The ARCHES Inn, housed in a former Super 8 Motel, will eventually offer 80 units of emergency shelter with an on-site food pantry, communal kitchen, laundry facility and 24/7 staffing.
The shelter is one of the 19 across 13 counties paid for by Project Turnkey, a grant program administered by the Oregon Community Foundation to help local housing agencies purchase and repurpose motels. The program has added more than 860 new shelter beds to the state’s portfolio, an increase of 20% in just a year at a cost of $75 million in federal pandemic relief funding.
“I think one of the strengths of Project Turnkey is that it’s allowing local organizations that really know their community best and know their community members needs best to be the ones who are going to really steward these facilities moving forward,” said Megan Loeb, program director at the Oregon Community Foundation.
Gov. Kate Brown praised Project Turnkey and The ARCHES Inn as an example of what can be done when Oregon’s leaders work collaboratively with state agencies and local partners to respond quickly and imaginatively to a crisis.
Project Turnkey began in 2020 as a way to swiftly rehouse families and individuals impacted by wildfires, but it soon grew as a response to the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic posed to shelter providers.
Social distancing and other COVID-19 measures implemented by the state forced many shelters to move away from congregate settings.
“ARCHES Inn is a perfect example of what is possible when we all work together to tackle seemingly impossible tasks one step at a time,” the governor said. “Today is also a reminder of the work that lies in front of us.”
Brown went on to say that while shelter is critical and points the state in the right direction, Oregon cannot end homelessness until the state improves its stock of permanent and affordable housing.
Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, speaking to a crowd of about 120 people who showed up for the event, echoed that.
“It won’t end until we decide that it is not in the best interest of anyone to allow people to live in their cars, or under plastic on the side of the road,” Patterson said. “This is Oregon, and we are in the richest country in the world — we remember on this Pearl Harbor Day — we can do better.”
Jimmy Jones, executive director of Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency and one of the key figures in the development of The ARCHES Inn, told the crowd about several clients of his organization who died within the last year — and whose deaths helped spur the search for other shelter options.
One of those was a man named “Brian,” who agreed to have a staph infection looked at by a doctor, but only after staff at the community action agency agreed to get him a milkshake and a motel room for the night.
When staff checked on Brian the next morning, he was dead. The next day, a historic ice storm knocked out power to a majority of Marion County.
The idea for the ARCHES Inn grew out of Brian’s death and the extreme weather as Jones and his program director, Ashley Hamilton, talked about how many other people like Brian were out in the snow and ice with similar health problems.
“I think as we go forward, we can get to a place where this level of human suffering that is so great in our community can begin to be reversed,” Jones said. “One day we can reach a point where we all believe that everybody has the opportunity to be housed, and this situation, so dire for so long, to finally be resolved.”
Jones said there’s still a lot to learn about the motel-to-shelter model. The biggest question is how his agency will pay for the shelter once the initial $1 million in funding from the state’s continuum of care program runs out.
“There was a leap of faith to get these things deployed, but there’s bipartisan support to keep them going,” Jones said “The Legislature will see these projects as worthy and find ways to help support operational costs.”
He’s already beginning to work out some of those kinks and think about long-term planning, and the agency expects a sizable reimbursement check from FEMA for the sheltering they provided through the pandemic that the federal government has said it covers.
Jones is particularly excited about the opportunity that Project Turnkey provides agencies like his to leverage public money — local, state and federal dollars — and private funding. He said it will take about $1.25 million annually to operate the shelter at full capacity including on-site mental health services and other programming.
Jones said he’s hoping the committee working on President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better social spending bill will provide $1 million for the program thanks to lobbying from Oregon’s senators. He said the agency would use those dollars to fund renovations within the facility.
Jones said that the statewide interest in Project Turnkey provides an added layer of pressure for the facility and his agency.
“This is all a performance business,” he said. “If you’re not getting good outcomes, you’re not getting people off the street, you’re not getting them sheltered, the government who’s funding us will take a look at that and say, ‘Maybe we need to invest those resources somewhere else.’
“... We have the opportunity here to prove our work every day.”