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As Portland's Homeless Problem Spreads, Shelters Moving Outside Downtown


People in Southwest Portland’s Multnomah Village neighborhood were understandably nervous last fall when city leaders announced plans to house homeless people in their backyard.  

The mayor’s office promised the emergency shelter at the old Sears National Guard Armory would be temporary, just six months. And the mayor pledged to use shuttle buses to take the homeless guests back downtown every morning.

Still, neighbors worried it would lead to more homeless men and women wandering their streets and more of the small crimes — things like car break-ins and petty vandalism — associated with transients. But as the experiment nears an end, it turns out the homeless people aren’t the problem.  

“Some neighbors have complained about the noise of the shuttle buses,” said Beth Omansky, a retired educator. “They specifically have complained about the beeping sound of the wheelchair lifts.”

Omansky says none of the things her neighbors worried about have come to pass. That’s very good news for city and county leaders. 

A few years ago, civic leaders opted to emphasize permanent housing over emergency shelters, which were seen as nasty and overcrowded. But the recession and ensuing spike in real estate prices left thousands of people without a place to go tonight.

Marc Jolin, who runs the county’s homelessness effort, says that’s led to a desperate search for new shelter space — wherever it’s available.

“We’ve got sites we’re looking at in North Portland, in Northwest Portland, in Gresham as well,” Jolin said. “We’re looking at where there are significant numbers of homeless people, where there is no shelter available and where the opportunity exits — where there is a site.”

In the next few months, shelters may come to the Buckman neighborhood in Southeast Portland and on old olive oil factory in Sellwood-Moreland. Neighbors learned about that new shelter through the media. They didn’t like the lack of notification — they wanted input — but have generally responded positively.

Neighborhood activist Corinne Stefanick says that might be because Oregon’s homeless problem has grown so obvious, even in affluent neighborhoods.

“When that newspaper article came out, there was a flurry of positive thought, mostly from women,” she said. “They were saying, ‘Oh thank God, we’re going to help these people get off the streets.’”

Back in Southwest Portland, Omansky has advice for neighbors who might be getting a shelter: Don’t freak out.  

Omansky and dozens of others have volunteered at the Multnomah Village shelter, providing sack meals for guests and dropping off blankets and coats.

“The appreciation that the guests have when you go and just do a small act of kindness, it’s almost overwhelming,” she said. “It makes you understand why this sort of thing is important.”

When they visit, neighbors see that the accommodations aren’t exactly deluxe. Guests sleep on mats on the floor. The showers don’t work. The noise — people walking, talking, coughing, snoring — never stops.

Sundown in Portland. Shuttle buses transport homeless residents to the Multnomah Village shelter each night around 7 and drops them off downtown at 7 the following morning.

Sundown in Portland. Shuttle buses transport homeless residents to the Multnomah Village shelter each night around 7 and drops them off downtown at 7 the following morning.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

Those beeping shuttle buses drop guests off every evening around 7 and take them back downtown every morning before 7. James Peterson owns a business across the street and is very aware of the shelter’s schedule.  

“The buses make a lot of noise,” Peterson said. “I’m not sure it makes sense to bus these people in and then out. It would be better if they were located near where the social agencies are.”

Celeste Duvall, the shelter manager, says being outside downtown Portland can be inconvenient. On rainy days, guests arrive cold and wet. They wait in line for the shuttle and then face another line to check in.  

Yet Duvall, once homeless herself, also sees benefits to putting shelters somewhere other than downtown, a hub for drug dealing and an easy place to buy cheap alcohol.

“I have a lot of participants who because, they are out here, are reporting they’re able to stay clean and sober,” she said. “I have a couple of couples that come into my office every night (and say), ‘It’s another day clean, it’s another day clean.’ It’s amazing how much being out of the center city has affected their lives.” 

Community leaders hope to add 650 more shelter beds over the next two years, doubling the current supply. Until then, police and advocates say Portland’s homeless problem will only become more obvious; warmer weather will lead to more outdoor camping.  

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