As the Oregon’s capital city, Salem is a central hub for individuals experiencing homelessness, incarceration, and mental illness. Until 1980, Oregon law mandated that all state-run human service agencies, corrections administration, and mental hospital services were to be established within Salem city limits. As a result, the city experienced the creation of an environment characterized by generational poverty, recidivism, and quickly growing social service needs that outpaced the resources available.
Then, in 2007, a small movement formed in Salem. Responding to the unique environment of Oregon’s capital, a group of folks recognized an opportunity to bring dignity through community. What was initially a one-time effort to offer a meal, encouragement, and prayer in Cascades-Gateway Park, quickly turned into monthly - then weekly - gatherings of friends. People who were intimately aware of what life is like on the margins, and those who did not, gathered together to be in relationship, see each other more fully, and offer healing hope. They pooled together what they had, found pathways to resources, and met each other’s needs as best they could. The community known as Church@thePark had been formed.
For the next 13 years, Church@thePark gathered faithfully to love and serve one another. Early on, the Oregon Jaycees offered a building adjacent to Cascades-Gateway Park as a space to gather in winter months. With the blessing of the Jaycees, that building became a year-round hub for activity. Church services and shared meals anchored the community on Sundays, while the weekdays offered opportunities for resource connections. A partnership with Marion-Polk Food Share developed to provide weekly food boxes while the building became a fixture for the Salem Warming Network during winter. A community garden began to line the perimeter of the property, adding beauty and accessible food for anyone in need. The City of Salem also piloted a parking program in partnership with Church at the Park. Throughout these additions, the mission remained focused on creating spaces of transformation into health and wholeness through the crucible of mutual service.
During those 13 years, however, the number of individuals experiencing homelessness in Salem grew significantly. The disruption caused by COVID-19 intensified that trauma, and by early 2021, surveys estimated a population of about 2000 people whose only options for shelter were tents under park trees, sleeping bags under downtown awnings, their vehicles, or worse.
City leaders responded to the crisis by directing resources toward a new kind of solution: managed camping. In early 2021, Church at the Park and the City of Salem initiated a pilot project, hosting close to 100 people at the Oregon State Fairgrounds Pavilion. Only three months later, the results were clear. Managed camping provides safe, sanitary, and supportive environments for folks to problem solve and begin working toward stability.
Today, Church@thePark facilitates meaningful relationships through emergency sheltering, hope-focused navigation, and workforce development. The community supports two micro-shelter villages that grew out of the Pavilion project, and continues to offer the Safe Parking Program for folks living in their vehicles. Having purchased the building from the Jaycees in 2021, Church@thePark also continues to meet immediate needs and provide resource navigation on Turner Road, next to Cascades-Gateway Park. None of these efforts remain relevant or effective without the wisdom of those with lived experience of homelessness, and so Church@thePark offers job opportunities to the very people it seeks to center and serve. In community, all who find themselves a part of Church@thePark are discovering the beauty and restoration that occurs when everyone receives the truth that there is a place set for them at the table of love and acceptance.