Trying to stay warm
SALEM — A Salem taxi company is offering homeless residents a seat inside its cabs on chilly nights when the city's warming centers are not open.
Willamette Valley Yellow Cab usually offers free rides to shelters on cold nights, but this winter, they are going a step farther because of a controversy over when the city's warming shelters will open, the Statesman Journal reported Friday.
The Mid-Valley Community Action Agency, the nonprofit in charge of opening the warming centers, doesn't do so unless the overnight temperature is forecast to dip to 27 degrees or below for three nights in a row. The temperature has been in the low 30s this week and critics say that policy needs to change.
City leaders and representatives from the agency are debating whether to raise the threshold for opening the shelters amid the criticism.
Meanwhile, Yellow Cab drivers will let homeless people stay in the cabs for 10 to 15 minutes at a time to warm up, said Erin Wakefield, daughter of cab company owner Al Wakefield. Homeless customers will have to wait for a free cab like anyone else hailing a ride. The company has 40 cabs and 10 to 15 are on the road at any given time, she said.
"We just want to make sure people aren't freezing out there," Wakefield said.
An estimated 1,879 people were homeless in Marion and Polk counties from October 2016-17, according to the community action agency.
Year-round homeless agencies, such as the Union Gospel Mission of Salem, continue to provide their usual overnight beds and services.
The community action agency has said that opening shelters now under more lenient criteria may make it impossible to open them later when temperatures dip even lower because of limited resources. The agency has agreements with three local churches to act as warming shelters.
The shelters operate on a "shoestring budget" and are funded by donations, not city or county money, said Jon Reeves, executive director of the community action agency.
While the city doesn't operate the warming shelters, Mayor Chuck Bennett said he and City Manager Steve Powers will meet with Reeves to consider solutions.
"We've still got people sleeping on the street in the cold," Bennett said.
The mayor has said he wants to see how much it would cost the city to help expand the number of days warming shelters are open.
The city has shown it's willing to spend money on homeless outreach, already allocating $1.4 million to a homeless rental assistance program.
Reeves said he plans to discuss what the community's capacity is to do more and what resources haven't been tapped.