Earlier this month, Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office released a list of potential sites for the “safe rest villages,” the outdoor homeless shelters City Council approved in June. The list includes 71 city-owned parcels of land that could support individual structures as well as bathrooms, laundry, showers and other services for people experiencing homelessness. Ryan’s office says it will narrow down the list to six properties and have the shelters up and running by the end of the year. In the meantime, neighborhoods are considering what it would mean to have a city-sanctioned outdoor shelter in their community.
We hear from Kenton Neighborhood Association Vice Chair Tyler Roppe, Casey Boggs who is the chair of the homeless update committee for the Overlook Neighborhood Association and Sabina Urdes, chair of the Lents Neighborhood Association and executive director of the East Portland Collective.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Earlier this month, Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan released a list of potential sites for ‘safe rest villages’. That’s the name for the outdoor homeless shelters a city council approved in June. The sites will have individual structures as well as bathrooms, laundry showers, and other services for people experiencing homelessness. The list includes 71 parcels of city-owned land. Commissioner Ryan’s office says it will narrow that down to six and have shelters up and running by the end of the year. But in the meantime, neighborhoods are considering what it would mean to have a new city-sanctioned outdoor shelter in their midst. We’re gonna hear from representatives from three different neighborhoods. Now, we start with Tyler Roppe. He is the Vice Chair of the Kenton Neighborhood Association. Tyler, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Tyler Roppe: Thanks for having me, Dave
Miller: What have you been hearing from people in Kenton about the possibility of having a ‘safe rest village’ in their neighborhood?
Roppe: Well, I think two things. One is here in North Portland, there’s been an ongoing effort for maybe a year or two to try to figure out what we can do for solutions to get people off the streets in various sanctioned camps. That’s been an ongoing effort here, doing tours with elected officials, that kind of thing, gauging leaders to try and find places to put these kind of shelters. The second thing is, this seems to be a city wide effort. If you look at the 71 sites, almost half of them are in North Portland and there’s a huge swath of southeast that doesn’t have a single site on this list. We can’t do this alone. Maybe people in North Portland... we have the Kenton Women’s Village here and we’ve been home to a lot of new affordable housing complexes and there’s a village in St. John’s, things like this... but it’s got to be a city wide effort. So those are the first two things for me that stick out here in the major action we’re hearing.
Miller: What about some of the particular places that are on this list, including one in Kenton that’s currently used as a community garden. What do you make of that possibility?
Roppe: I don’t see that as a viable option at all. The only reason why that site made the list is because back in May, the 10 year lease between BES and Parks expired. So right now that small parcel of land is still being used as a community garden, which falls under parks, but the land is technically controlled by BES. So that’s why that land pops up. Just to take a garden away, that small stretch of land. At the time when the lease expired, the talk from parks was, it can stay a garden for a while, but ultimately it probably needs to be sold for infill housing. There’s infill housing all over the place, in plenty of places to put that. We don’t have another community garden in Kenton. There’s houseless neighbors that use that garden. The produce gets donated to people in shelters... all these kinds of things. So, a garden space has benefits in and of itself. It’s not just all about where can we build housing, and I haven’t talked to a single neighbor that thinks that’s a good idea. We all feel very strongly that it should stay a garden site and isn’t really appropriate to demolish and turn into an outdoor shelter.
Miller: What about the dozen or so sites along Columbia Boulevard? When I looked at the map put together by the Portland Mercury, I didn’t see a concentration as concentrated as that dozen set of dots anywhere else on the map. What do you make of those possibilities?
Roppe: Well, if you’ve been down Columbia Boulevard, there’s a paved off-road trail that follows the Colombia on the south side and a lot of these buffer strips, if you will, are kind of between Colombia Boulevard, that paved roadway and then, housing. So there’s a lot of them, most of them are quite small, they’re on a slope. They’re not very accessible. I don’t see them as very viable. Probably the most viable one is this elevated plot of land that sits across from the Kenton Women’s Village. There’s actually people that are camping there now. But the question there is, are we going to start clustering these outdoor villages together? Iit just so happened that the only spot we could put one in this area happens to be right next to one that’s already there.
Miller: Well, I’m curious about that before we say goodbye. You have the Kenton Women’s Village, as you mentioned earlier. You or other people from the neighborhood have already been giving tours to city officials to talk about possible sites for other encampments or sanctioned places. Broadly, what do you think it would take for this new program to succeed wherever the sites are actually finalized?
Roppe: The main thing for me is having the engagement in support of that neighborhood, local community. One of the things we really found with the Kenyan Women’s Village is that this was a community effort. That project would have never succeeded without donations and volunteering, etcetera. It was a lot harder than people thought and it really did take all this committee involvement to ensure that it was going to succeed. It wasn’t really a situation where the joint office provided everything and managed everything through Catholic Charities. There were gaps that had to be filled. You look at the pods themselves, when the site was relocated because the original pods didn’t hold up very well. That was all donated, both labor and materials through an effort that Anderson Construction did. Heaters were donated by neighbors, smoke detectors, all these kinds of things. So a very community driven effort. So I think with these six shelters, there’s probably gonna be some aspect of that. I mean it’s not apples,
apples, apples here. These are gonna be a little different than what we have with the Kenton Women’s Village. But I still think there’s going to be an element here where the community is going to have to rally around this and fill some of those gaps that are certainly going to emerge because I just feel like these kinds of projects, from my experience, at the Kenton Women’s Village, it’s easier said than done. Just for a lot of elements that people thought, oh, no big deal and ultimately was a little more of a challenge than we thought. But we got through it because we were invested in this and we were committed to success.
Miller: Tyler Roppe, thanks very much for joining us.
Miller: Tyler Roppe is a Vice Chair of the Kenton Neighborhood Association. I’m joined now by Casey Boggs. He’s a chair of the Homeless Update Committee for the Overlook Neighborhood Association. Casey Boggs, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Boggs: Thank you, Dave.
Miller: What is the Homeless Update Committee?
Boggs: It’s a committee, for the most part, to report and to support the homeless community in our neighborhood. So it’s not advocacy, either way. It’s just to make sure that our radar is on as far as the homeless community and what folks, the residents, can do to both report and to support those experiencing homelessness.
Miller: Those sound like potentially conflicting tasks: to report and support. Maybe we can leave the details of the committee’s work to another day. But I’m just curious before we push on for the proposed sites, what’s your sense for the proposed sites on the list that are in your neighborhood in Overlook?
Boggs: First, I wanna say thank you for giving North Portland a voice here. I don’t think, from our perspective, the city has given us a voice to make sure that we are heard as far as the issues that are around our neighborhood. Second is Tyler, I very much echo his discussions as far as a disproportionate amount of effort the homeless camps being proposed are in north, northeast Portland. We think that’s very unfair. If you look at some of the more wealthier neighborhoods in Portland, there’s almost zero proposed sites of the 71 sites that are there. So there’s a little bit of disdain as far as the residents are concerned. I can’t speak for everyone, but for the most part it’s looked at unfavorably that, specifically with the Overlook Neighborhood, that there are five spots that have been identified and then certainly seven or eight within the surrounding neighborhoods. If you look at the more wealthier neighborhoods, there’s zero. So that’s more of the issues that are being discussed right now within our neighborhood.
Miller: That’s a question of a kind of geographical equity. What do you make of the sites themselves and what they might mean for houseless people either currently in Overlook or anywhere else in Portland?
Boggs: Well, if you dissect each of the sites, which won’t necessarily go into too much detail, but one of them that is in our neighborhood, it’s called the Dog Bowl, which essentially because there’s a big kind of crevice area for people to walk their dogs, to hang out with families, to hike and what not, and that is within North Portland. And the site itself doesn’t necessarily seem conducive to having such a camp designated there, just because of unsafety issues, as far as the location is concerned, and really would be an area that wouldn’t really have access to any public transportation. So that one in particular is a highly contested area, specifically to the residents that live there. Then the ones on Swan Island and others that are being proposed. These are in our neighborhood. Safety is one. Access, as they outlined before. None of them really, from our perspective, reached the high criteria of what’s been outlined.
Miller: If you don’t think that those spots are great or the geographic spread is representative of where people actually live in the city, what do you want to see right now?
Boggs: Well, certainly, I applaud the efforts. I do applaud the efforts as far as identifying them. I just don’t necessarily think the sites themselves are where they should be. So it would be interesting to see where they dwindle down the 71 to 6 and to support those who are experiencing homelessness. But the ones that are being proposed doesn’t necessarily jive specifically to what they had as a criteria. The criteria really is what we’re looking at as well. We are all part of the solution for sure, because it’s an issue. It’s not a ‘not in my backyard’ aspect, more [in the] lines of what are the best solutions here. That’s what we’re looking to help and support, but do it in a righteous and appropriate way.
Miller: Casey Boggs, thanks very much for joining us.
Boggs: Thank you.
Miller: Casey Boggs is a Chair of the Homeless Update Committee for the Overlook Neighborhood Association. We’re talking right now to get a variety of perspectives on the list of potential sites for the city of Portland’s ‘safe rest villages’. These are 71 possible sites for these new outdoor homeless shelters. That 71 will be whittled down to six. For one more perspective on this, I’m joined by Sabina Urdes. She’s a chair of the Lents Neighborhood Association. Sabina Urdes, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Urdes: Thank you for having me and thank you for including Lents in this conversation.
Miller: We’re thrilled to have you on. What are you hearing from people in your neighborhood about the possibility of having a ‘safe rest village’ in Lents?
Urdes: I see and I hear a mix of reactions from our housed neighbors. I see a hyper focus on where these will be built, and the fact that it’s not in the inner neighborhoods as we’ve heard from the two guests who spoke prior to me. Hyper focus on the fact that the wealthier neighborhoods like Laurelhurst are not planned to have any ‘safe rest villages’ and that we will here in outer East Portland. Our plan to have several and some folks make the argument that that’s inequitable, the argument being that we already are underserved and under-resourced in East Portland, so we might not be able to keep up with the needs of folks who struggle with trauma and substance misuse and extreme poverty.
Miller: So that’s from housed people or homeowners. What are you hearing from houseless people?
Urdes: I hear, and I also see, the immediate impact that that ordinance that was passed had on folks here because so much of that, that’s not being discussed, was the part about the city being able to enforce sweeps now with less accountability, less notice and all that. It didn’t have to be this way. They could have waited to be more strict about sweeps once they had a place for folks to go. Right now, we’ve already seen, here along the Springwater Corridor, them enforcing those sweeps immediately. Some of us in the community have been helping our houseless neighbors pack and move and they’re asking, where should we go? If this isn’t okay, where can we go? Should we go along the freeway again? We have no place to go. I wish that the Commissioners would have answered that question, or that they would have waited to enforce the sweeps until they had a place for people to go. Generally, these are also seen, regardless of what they’re called, they’re seen as shelters. Obviously our houseless neighbors are not a monolith, but from what I hear, there’s a general mistrust in the city and also in shelters as being helpful because the perception is that they’re not welcoming of people’s pets or they’re not welcoming of folks who maybe used cannabis to treat their PTSD. So it’s not somewhere where people are just going to flock necessarily.
Miller: How is the current heat, or even more extreme heat dome that we experienced a month or so ago, how has that affected the way you think about all of this?
Urdes: It’s definitely changed my perception after running the cooling station at Lents Park, which we’re back doing today. Just seeing how many folks were struggling with heat stroke, and how they were refusing, even as we were having to maybe call an ambulance for them, they were refusing to go to a cooling center. Again, the perception being that I can’t take my animal with me. I don’t want to be separated from my animal. Or I’m just not welcome there because of my circumstances and all that. Being out there and serving at the cooling station has formed a lot of friendships between housed and unhoused neighbors and some of us like myself, I’m housed, have formed friendships with some of them are just a lot more in tune with their stories and struggles and the barriers they face. We hear them say that they want housing, but they don’t necessarily want a shelter. I have yet to hear someone say, wow, I can’t wait for these ‘safe rest villages’. Folks would want to be housed, but they just can’t because of certain factors or circumstances in their lives that’s going to take time to fix.
Miller: We just have about a minute left, but I’m just curious if you were giving Commissioner Ryan himself advice about vetting these sites, what would you tell him?
Urdes: I’m in support of anything that would be helpful, even short term to our houseless neighbors, but I think that it would be best to invest less in shelters and more in housing first models. People experiencing homelessness in low barrier permanent housing with support services. This is the approach favored by the PSU Homelessness Research and Multnomah County Chair, Deborah Kafoury. You see the article in the Willamette Week that’s out now. I welcome anything that could be helpful to our houseless neighbors. I just am not sure that the ‘safe rest villages’ will be. I hope they will be.
Miller: Sabina Urdes, thanks very much for joining us.
Urdes: Thank you.
Miller: Sabina Urdes is a Chair of the Lents Neighborhood Association and Executive Director of the East Portland Collective. That’s an all volunteer community organization that provides classes, events and mutual aid.
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