Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, who oversees a trio of housing and homelessness-related agencies for the city, said the local government is looking to implement a new “safe park program” for people experiencing homelessness who live in their cars.
In an interview with OPB’s “Think Out Loud” Monday, Ryan said the city wants to set up two locations: one for people who have recently lost their homes and another location for people who have been living out of their cars or RVs for a longer period of time.
Ryan, who oversees the Housing Bureau, the Bureau of Development Services and serves as the point person for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services, said he imagined the spaces as large parking lots with communal spaces for hygiene and food, along with social workers and mental health counselors on site.
“I know out in my neighborhood in North Portland, you’re seeing so many people parked alongside the road,” said Ryan. “We could organize those cars and those RVs into a big parking lot that had hygiene, safety, that had food services, and that had also mental health services.”
Publicly operated parking lots for people living in their cars have been implemented along the West Coast in recent years as an affordable housing and homelessness crisis has forced more people out of their homes and into their vehicles. Eugene, Beaverton and Los Angeles all have similar programs.
Ryan said the city is considering implementing one as well. Ryan said he’s convened several meetings with Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, and County Commissioner Sharon Meieran to work out how to expand alternative shelter options in the city. The group came to a consensus around two concrete policies.
The first is the parking lot program. The second is a callout for public input on potential alternative shelter models with local government funding the most promising proposals. Ryan suggested the money for the proposals could come from the homeless service tax passed by Metro, the area’s regionally elected government, in May.
Ryan said, while he supports a housing-first approach where permanent housing is prioritized, he believes moving directly straight from the streets into housing wasn’t doable for all people who are chronically homeless. He referred to the experience of his older brother, who was homeless and died on Portland’s street six years ago.
“We tried to meet him where he was. But he found being on the streets a better alternative,” said Ryan. “If there was a low-barrier community where he had a chance to be around people who were also getting services and had a social worker know him by name there would have been hope.”
“I just know there are people in that category and we have to provide these types of alternatives for shelters,” he continued.
The city is poised to be down one alternative shelter option. The city announced this January that officials would no longer be providing services to Hazelnut Grove, a self-governed village in North Portland’s Overlook neighborhood. The city said the change was necessary due to environmental concerns, citing the danger of landslides and difficulty accessing the site in case of an emergency. About half of the people living in the community would move to St. Johns Village, an alternative shelter with pods, and the rest would be referred to other shelter programs.
But some residents of the community don’t want to be uprooted and say elected leaders were hiding behind environmental concerns to appease housed neighborhoods upset over the encampment. A crowd of supporters and advocates gathered in the rain in front of city hall Monday for a rally to save the village. The group presented a petition with over 5,000 signatures intended for Ryan and Wheeler, asking the city to honor its commitment to innovative housing solutions.
“The city will essentially throw remaining Grove residents out into the streets during a worsening of the pandemic, claiming we all have a place, which we — and I adamantly say — do not have a place, Mr. Wheeler,” said resident Scott Weber. “We’re fine right where we’re at.”
The closure was initiated before Ryan took over as the city’s point person for the Joint Office of Homeless Services. Asked if he would have made the same decision, Ryan said he didn’t want to play “Monday morning quarterback.”
“My job is to really continue to meet with the people that are currently there, meet them where they are, help them build resilience and help them find a place where they can continue to make progress towards stable housing,” he said.