Think Out Loud

Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan on outdoor shelters

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
Nov. 1, 2021 11:04 p.m. Updated: Nov. 9, 2021 9:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 2

A man sits outside his camp in Southwest Portland, Sept. 30, 2021.

A man sits outside his camp in Southwest Portland, Sept. 30, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan is leading an initiative to construct six city-sanctioned outdoor homeless shelters by the end of 2021. In late September, Ryan’s office announced the first three sites for what they are calling “safe rest villages.” Since then, one of the sites has been taken off the list, and there are still many unanswered questions about how the villages will work. We talk with Commissioner Ryan about that and about how this approach fits in with the rest of the city’s policies affecting people who are homeless.

The following 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. Portland Commissioner Dan Ryan is leading the effort to create six city-sanctioned outdoor homeless shelters. The plan is to have them up and running by the end of this year. But so far, only three sites have been publicly identified, and one was already taken off the list. Meanwhile, there are still some unanswered questions about how the program known as ‘safe rest villages’ will work. Dan Ryan joins us to talk about this program and how it fits into the city’s overall approach to homelessness. Commissioner Ryan, welcome back.

Dan Ryan: Thank you, Dave. Good to be here.

Miller: You’ve spearheaded the two ordinances behind the safe rest villages program. Can you remind us what the big idea behind it is?

Ryan: Yes, absolutely. In June, all five of us on the city council passed unanimously to start building these safe rest villages. The idea is because, when you look at our onramps to support for those living on the streets, we’re missing that onramp of supports. So, taking someone who has been chronically houseless for sometimes years and thinking they can instantly go into an apartment and be successful is not easy to imagine.  So, we really need to build trust on the streets with our houselessness and help them build that resilience so that when they are permanently housed, they’ll have a much higher success rate.

Miller: Well, practically speaking, what exactly do you imagine that that transition is going to be like? If you’re saying that if you’ve been chronically homeless for a while and you go into housing, it’s less likely to work, what is it the transition you’re talking about going to actually accomplish?

Ryan: I think it’s important to dispel some myths and fears regarding the safe rest villages. First of all, the safe rest villages will be managed, outdoor shelters. They’re not tents. They provide 24/7 case management in 24/7 supervision. These villages will provide that onramp that Portlanders experiencing houselessness really need before they move into permanent housing. The recovery programs, reconnect with family, whatever steps their journey might be. The village is the start with low-barrier entry. Partners and pets will also be welcome, and the villagers will have access to hygiene services, communal gathering spaces with case management. It’s about connection.

So, they’ll have the self-managed camps. Let me repeat, the safe rest villages we built with a thoughtful community engagement strategy as well, so that both the housed and the unhoused neighbors can really collaborate to make their communities safer, cleaner and more sustainable. This is going to benefit Portland’s community safety as well overall.

Miller: When you say low barrier entry, does that mean, for example, that people won’t need to be off drugs or alcohol before they can get into these villages?

Ryan: Yeah, it’s more of a desire. It’s a desire to improve their current condition, to improve their day to day life. So, I can tell you stories where my brother would stay with some of my family members and it would work if we were home and we were there taking them to 12 step meetings, just providing that 24/7 connection time. But when someone is on the early stages of being in active addiction, if you will, it’s a pretty tough time. So you need a lot of structure and a lot of service and attention to build that connection. So the hope is, of course, that they will build that resilience in while they’re there. These are short-term locations for someone and the idea is then as soon as a case manager can find space and permanent housing, and the houseless person that’s in the village is making some strides, they will be ready to move into the permanent housing.

Miller: Katie Penna on Facebook has a related question here. She says, ‘how does Commissioner Ryan plan to address psychosis or severe drug addiction in the city sanctioned outdoor homeless camps’?

Ryan: Well, that’s a wonderful question and that’s why we’re here today. I was at the county commissioners meaning to talk about the need for the bigger investments in behavioral health. I think you our state is anywhere between 47th and 51st on that list. So this is a city in a state that has to really focus on building those support systems on the ground. And as you were talking to the people earlier from Portland Street Response, we’re all in this together. Having better trauma- informed systems on the ground is necessary. I imagine that we will be working with partners like those at Portland Street Response to help figure out those diagnoses and provide the transition hopefully into the villages for those that are ready. What’s challenging, Dave, is we have a lot of people that are service-resistant, and so the other big investment that we’re making in the fall budget monitoring, both of the county amd the city, is to increase the number of navigation team members that are out in the field.

I learned through when we’re trying to clean Laurelhurst Park, for example, that we have a lot of people that are houseless that are service-resistant, and it takes time to build those relationships. Relationships move at the speed of trust. And so it’s that type of persistence that we need on the ground to really work with people that are that are suffering from severe behavioral health issues and having such episodes.

Miller: These will be voluntary, right? I mean, you’re not going to be forcing people to move into these camps?

Ryan: We are going to focus on those who are near the sites that were locating and we will start with that because that’s a neighborhood agreement we’re making. And yes, you have to have a desire to want to improve. So it does take building those relationships to help someone move into that place. I think most people, when they start to be seen and they’re receiving professional attention, there’s hope that they will make that transition towards having a better life one day at a time.

Miller: You said that’s where you’re starting, and starting locally. But is the door open for having police officers or Portland Street Response, or whoever, come to some unsanctioned campsite in some neighborhood and say ‘you cannot stay here, but we will take you... in fact, you have no choice... but if you want to be outside, to this sanctioned campsite down the road’? Is that the ultimate plan?

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Ryan: The ultimate plan is to is to build them. First of all, to get sites so we can actually start building them, and then to fill them up. I think that we will start with those that have some willingness to actually want to be in the village and create that community and that connection so that they can move forward and have a much better life when they get into permanent housing.

Miller: I want to go back for a question for a second to the question about drugs. Yesterday, we talked to the journalist Sam Quinones about meth. His contention is that, over the last decade or so, but even just the last couple years, meth has become cheaper, more plentiful and much more dangerous because of a chemical composition change. As a result, he said that it’s fundamentally changed the situation on American streets leading to more psychosis, more homelessness, and more difficulty getting people into treatment. Does that ring true to you in Portland?

Ryan: I think the story that you were told is the story that I’ve been told many times. I’ve heard it from friends that had challenges with crystal meth back when it really hit the market in the 90′s. They’ve been telling me this as well. So, it’s something that is prevalent out in the community. Again, the state of Oregon and all of the local jurisdictions are dealing with this right now, or have to deal with this. I think it’s really clear that the investments that came from the state house this year around behavioral health must look at how we can provide better systems and also, some treatment centers. We’re really lacking treatment centers, and it’s a big push that I hope everyone running for  governor will start talking about. We’ve closed systems and we’ve closed such places such as [inaudible], and we haven’t done a good job of replacing them with something.

Miller: Over the summer, you put out a list of 70 or so potential sites that were under consideration for the safe rest villages model, and then announced three spots that you were focusing on: one in downtown Portland on the westside of Naito Parkway, one at Southeast 122nd and East Burnside in the Hazelwood neighborhood, and one in Brentwood-

Darlington near Southeast 45th and Harney. That last one was nixed because of flooding concerns. More recently, I’ve seen articles about a former Whitaker Middle School campus in Northeast Portland. Where does everything stand right now in terms of sighting?

Ryan: Every day I’m on phone calls with other jurisdictions trying to pencil out an agreement and we’re just moving forward. We will eventually get to six. We’ve also repurposed some of the C3PO camps, if you will. The ones on Water Avenue. One was moved to Weidler, and our office has taken over with the team that’s doing the villages to make those more of a village-type setting. So, I just want to put that out there, as well. Because our village team, if you will, we got the money allocated in July and we were able to get the first person hired who’s leading it, and she’s put a whole team together in a month and a half, which is pretty fast. But yeah, we have a lot of work to continue to do and to build these partnerships with other jurisdictions.

The number of sites that we announced was an inventory, and that was all there was, an inventory of land that the city has in all its bureaus. That was the assignment given to all the bureau leads. Most of them clearly weren’t suitable for two acres to build villages, but it’s always good for a city to have that in case of other emergencies. However, we really had to resort to working with other partners with land and finding those two acres is what’s keeping me up at night if you will. And I’m delighted that we have two that are moving along. We had one that was, I would say, prematurely announced. I’ve learned a lot about this thing called ‘leaks’. You’re just in the early stages of working out the contract with a partner, penciling it out, and then before you know it, it was leaked to the media. And so it really does make it challenging then to then engage with the community that you’re totally focused on engaging with. But sometimes it just gets ahead of you.

Miller: In terms of the timing, for months now, we’ve heard that the plan is to have all six of these not just announced or in contract negotiations, but up and running by the end of this year. Is it fair to say that that’s no longer possible?

Ryan: You know what, I’m an ambitious rookie politician and I come from the private community sector. I probably got ahead of my skis on that one. I will tell you that I found one thing - I’m persistent. You can’t knock me out. So we’re just gonna keep moving forward and we will get these built. Portland is fighting for the soul of the city. We’ve got to take action. I haven’t run into too many people that don’t want these built. It’s always a different conversation when, in fact, it’s near where they live.

Miller: But what’s the more realistic timeline at this point?

Ryan: The realistic timeline is to build these one at a time. We’ve had to repurpose the current C3PO sites to turn them more into village environment where we can see more success for people that live there to move on to permanent housing. I think we’ll have a couple of the other ones up and running early in 2022, and I think that we will see definitely six safe rest villages definitely up and running into 2022.

Miller: I want to play an excerpt from a recent interview we did with Mayor Wheeler. The week he was on, the Portland Mercury had just run a story saying quote, ‘Mayor Ted Wheeler’s office has been discussing a strategy to ban homeless camping from areas of downtown Portland and to move those campers into a quote ‘high population outdoor camping zone.’ ' The article included an email from you to the mayor explaining why you didn’t think this was a good idea, essentially. I asked the Mayor about it and this was part of his response.

Mayor Wheeler: Even if Commissioner Ryan is successful in getting all six of his camps up and running, that will still leave thousands of people on our streets, living in the elements, living in squalid conditions, being exposed to victimization in various ways. And so my question was, rather than just seeing all of these unsanctioned camps that I think are frankly, really inhumane, what if we did something in between? What if there were certain large areas that people could go, and know that there would be toilets, running water, potentially laundry services, maybe access to transportation if we can get TriMet involved, possibly navigation to other services and housing? What if we consider that as a solution? So, my team is basically considering everything. We’re leaving no stone unturned. And ultimately, the goal should be to find compassionate solutions to get people off the streets so that we don’t have any unsanctioned homeless camps anywhere within city limits. That should be the goal.

Miller:  I was really struck by the language the Mayor used at the beginning of that, he said, ‘...even if Commissioner Ryan is successful in getting all six of his camps up and running that will still leave thousands of people living on our streets.’ There are two things embedded there, one that you might not be successful in getting these up and running and two, that these are your camps and he called them ‘his camps’ as if this is your project and then he has his own. What do you make of that statement?

Ryan: They’re not camps, they’re villages. And they’re our villages. So again, the city council voted 5-0 unanimously to build these as the right next step. I know we’re on the same page on that, I’m just on the circuit. We’re realizing that it’s really important to use the right language. These are not camps and they’re not unsanctioned camps. And boy, you really learn that when you’re trying to connect with neighbors where we’re siting these two so they can see that life in their neighborhood will actually improve when we move from the unsanctioned camping in that location to actually having a village that has 24/7 supervision with services.

And also I think where the mayor and I have been having great conversations along with the chair, is to ensure that we improve the amount of investments for two things: the navigation team that I mentioned earlier, and also the impact reduction team services surrounding the villages. Because it’s very important for both the housed and the unhoused. The housed just need us to live up to our neighborhood agreements and have a commitment to keep the area looking much better than it did before we provided these services.

And it’s also, again, so important for one living in the village when they come out to do a walk in the neighborhood, that they’re not triggered by people that they know that are still using, frequently, drugs on the streets. It’s really hard when you’re someone that’s taking early steps in recovery to not be surrounded by those that are still using. In terms of the unsanctioned camping, everyone knows that cities weren’t built for that and we know that we’re doing all we can. That’s why we have more investments in the fall bump so that we can focus on providing, I would say, triage care, if you will. What I like about that is it allows us in the navigation team to really know people by name much earlier so we can build those relationships and get them into services.

Miller: Commissioner Ryan, thanks for your time today.

Ryan: Absolutely. Have a great day. Thanks.

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