SALEM — Phillip, 24, came from Indianapolis and had been in Salem only a week, but he’d already learned to survive without a home.
He started by getting a job: He works overnight, providing security at the city’s shuttered former courthouse building. He hopes to land a second gig, in a restaurant kitchen, soon.
But until his first few paychecks arrive, he can’t afford rent.
On a recent day off, he was asking for money outside of CVS, on the pedestrian mall. Asked where he sleeps, he answered vaguely.
“I mostly just wander,” he said, adding that his sister lives in Peabody but he has no transportation to get there. “It’s not the ideal situation or something you’d want to do. But it could be a lot worse.”
As a Salem dweller with no permanent housing in the city, Phillip has plenty of company this summer, according to various indicators.
Lifebridge , Salem’s 50-bed shelter for the homeless, is serving more meals than it did last summer.
Homeless-related calls to the police are up 143 percent so far from last year, including a 215 percent increase in July (from 54 calls in 2016 to 170 in 2017).
“The statistics are kind of staggering,” said Captain Conrad Prosniewski, spokesman for the Salem Police Department, at a July 27 forum on homelessness. “We’ve seen a major uptick from last year.”
Salem now has between 60 and 80 homeless people. That includes 13 chronically homeless individuals who account for about 1,000 calls to the police a year, Prosniewski said.
Newcomers to the streets appear to be more transient and might be, at times, sleeping on friends’ couches, in vehicles, or outdoors. When police get calls about nuisance behavior, the issues tend to involve infighting rather than harassment of passersby, Police Chief Mary Butler said.
This summer, Mayor Kimberley Driscoll organized A Collaborative for Hope, which brings together six public and nonprofit agencies to address the causes of and responses to homelessness. She’s been getting calls of concern for the well-being of people who might be struggling with poverty, mental illness, and/or substance abuse. She’s also hearing from residents worried about their own safety.
“When you have people congregating in public spaces, it can be pretty intimidating to neighbors or passersby,” Driscoll said. “We’re trying to focus on: How do we connect folks to services and address nuisance behavior? But it’s not illegal to sit on a bench and be unkempt.”
Concerned neighbors include Derby Street resident Monica Brenton. At the forum, she told the crowd of more than 100 how her daughter with Down syndrome now requires an escort into the building where her parents live when she visits. Jillian Jalbert, a mother of three teens, said she doesn’t feel safe at Salem Common.
“I like to take my children bike riding there, It is consistently worse and worse, with a younger population,” Jalbert said.
To increase the police presence, Salem has boosted patrols by calling up seven reserve officers and dispatching four newly hired officers, who walk a downtown beat as part of their training. The city also has hired two outreach workers to build trust and help connect transient homeless people with social services.
“We get it,” Butler said at the forum. “I understand you feel uncomfortable. We encourage that people actually go there [to the Common] because the more people that are there, the less likely that [transients] want to be there.”
Others are concerned that Salem is making too much of the homelessness issue.
Jerry Smith, president of the Salem Common Neighborhood Association , disputed the idea that the park has become “this grubby place” or a haven for the homeless. He said residents should feel safe there.
Members of the association “say they see more homeless on the Common, but they’re not really homeless,” Smith said. “It’s more a gathering of youth on the Common.”
To get a handle on what’s happening, Lifebridge last year partnered with Salem State University to survey 26 homeless or transient individuals in the city. Eighteen were from Massachusetts; 12 were either from Salem or other North Shore communities. More than two-thirds were men. The average age was 34½. Those surveyed were sleeping outdoors, in vehicles, at Lifebridge, and at friends’ homes. About one-third said they had jobs.
“It’s a whole bunch of populations” on Salem’s streets, said Jason Etheridge, Lifebridge executive director. “Some may or may not be homeless. There’s been some talk of an increase in panhandling, so the automatic assumption is, ‘Oh, those are homeless people asking for money.’ That’s not necessarily the case.”
Some might come to Salem without a housing plan, Etheridge said, adding that they expect to figure out housing options later.
Why Salem? Most of those without homes who were surveyed said it’s because they have personal or family ties to the city. Some came to find work, social services, or a particular lifestyle, including witchcraft in a few cases. Phillip came to be near his sister in Peabody after his mother died and his Indianapolis roommate sent him packing.
“The bottom line is they feel safe here,” said Prosniewski, of the Police Department. “And that’s great. Now that they feel safe, let’s get them on the right track.”
Some of the new homeless are locals.
Tina, 36, was born and raised in Salem. She was renting a room for $175 a week at the Lafayette Hotel until she got laid off from her hotel housekeeping job during a slow period last spring. Now, from night to night, she’s not sure where she’ll sleep. Her tent got ruined, she said, so the best she can hope for is a friend’s couch.
For three months, Tina has been applying for jobs at hotels, restaurants, and other businesses, but finds employers are getting “pickier.” Her unemployment check is $45 a week. To get by, she spends four hours a day walking a traffic island near Stop & Shop on the Salem-Swampscott line. She holds a cardboard sign: “homeless please anything will help thank you.” People give her food, job leads, and cash. To bring in $20 to $60 per day, she puts up with insults hurled at her by passersby.
“People will yell at me ‘Get a job!’ like this is my first choice,” Tina said. “You know what I mean? Like I woke up and want to stand here and get judged by every single person.”
Driscoll noted that people sometimes want to help, but worry panhandlers might spend the cash on alcohol or drugs. Salem is looking into alternative giving programs, such as those run by cities in the Rocky Mountain West. Denver, for instance, connects donors to local nonprofits that help the homeless via a text-to-give program. Salt Lake City streets have red meters that accept money for homeless assistance programs.
“They basically have signs that say ‘We are a compassionate community, but giving to the panhandlers often isn’t helpful. Give here,’ ” Driscoll said.
Seeking long-term solutions, Salem also is exploring what has worked on the West Coast. Lifebridge is sending a team of two to Seattle to see how tiny houses help people transition to permanent housing.
In Peabody, North Shore Community Action Programs is piloting “Housing First,” another West Coast approach that gets people housed before their personal issues are resolved and then provides support services.
Meanwhile, the new collaborative in Salem is creating a pipeline from Lifebridge to the North Shore Workforce Investment Board, which connects those who’ve been in shelters with day labor and other job opportunities.
“We have restaurants looking to hire people and homeless people needing jobs. That just drives me crazy,” said Mary Sarris, executive director of the organization, which is located in Salem. “I think: What can we do to help those folks? I want to grab everybody that’s available to work and get them into a job.”G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.