Salem senior centers share their approach to working with the less fortunate

Donna Avina is president of the South Salem Senior Center, and oversees the lunch program, as well as many other activities at the center.

Two Salem senior centers are taking steps to help the homeless and less-fortunate in their communities.

“We still have two or three individuals who look for homeless coming for lunch at our Marion-Polk Food Share lunches,” says Donna Avina, president of South Salem Senior Center. “For quite a while after the homeless camp on Commercial near us was broken up, we had a number, mostly men. Most of these people are gone now, because we heard they broke up the two camps these groups had set up.

“A man and woman living in their vehicle also come here regularly,” she says. “Marion-Polk is charged with feeding the hungry, so they have no problem they say with feeding these individuals for free. It’s their mission.”

Avina says numbers may increase at South Salem and other senior centers as more homeless camps are disbursed. With the last camp breakup, the center had a homeless man sleeping in front of the doors who had to be asked to move on.

“The problem seems to be in perceptions,” she says. “People assume because you are homeless that you’re a drug addict, a criminal, a person who should be feared. None that we’ve had in our center so far have been any of those things.”

The visitors were mainly friendly, and while some members were apprehensive, most were usually welcoming.

“One person came in every day, got a book from our library, and sat and read for hours, sometimes napping,” she says. “Some had good conversations with people, even shopped in our rummage rooms, buying clothes and other items.”

In past years, Avina says a few with apparent mental issues created an issue for members.

“One man came in nude a few years ago,” she says. “Another mentally ill woman used to come regularly to eat cookies and hang out. Our volunteer staff has been really good on trying to be very compassionate and helpful to these individuals when they need assistance, and to call for 911 assistance when necessary.”

With 10,000 registered patrons, Center 50+ operates with a code of conduct that protects the 850 members per day that attend, says Marilyn Daily, manager.

Center 50+ is run by the city of Salem and the nonprofit Friends of Center 50+.

“This number continues to grow as we become more popular,” Daily says. “We have a very small paid staff and a volunteer workforce of more than 500. In order to effectively monitor our 30,000-square-foot facility and parking lot, and provide the level of service we do, we needed to bring in additional help.”

Center 50+ now uses paid security to help with general monitoring of the facility, and supporting staff in enforcing the center’s code of conduct, Daily says.

“The additional support from security is welcome both by staff and patrons,” she says. “Security at our facility is unarmed. Not only does the security help enforce our Code of Conduct, they also help with problem-solving and connecting people with additional resources when necessary.”

Everyone is asked to use the facility for the purpose it was intended — a recreation center where people participate in programs and activities, Daily says.

Most area senior centers expect the same standards of conduct, and are aware of the growing need to help those who need assistance, including the homeless.

“People who need services not offered by our center are connected to the appropriate agencies to get those needs met,” Daily says of Center 50+. “We have a great partnership with Northwest Senior and Disability Services and Marion-Polk Food Share, just to name a few, who help us connect people to medical, shelter and food resources.”

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