By the end of this month, Portland plans to open 60 more temporary, outdoor homes, as part of its Safe Rest Villages program, for people who are living on the streets. It’s part of Commissioner Dan Ryan’s plan to open six Safe Rest Villages across the city to help transition people into housing. Chariti Montez is in charge of that effort for the city. She joins us to explain what the safe rest villages will mean for the city when they are all up and running.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. By the end of this month, Portland’s plans to open 60 more temporary outdoor homes for people who are living on the streets. It is part of Commissioner Dan Ryan’s plans to open six safe rest villages across the city to help transition people into housing. Charitti Montez is in charge of this effort. She joins us now for an update on where the project stands. Chariti Montez, welcome.
Chariti Montez: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Miller: I want to start with the big picture, then we can dig into some details. How many small villages are up and running right now?
Montez: That’s a great question. There are villages that are not Safe Rest Villages. So there are probably about 10 alternative shelters in the city of Portland. One of those is a Safe Rest Village. It’s the Multnomah Safe Rest Village that we opened in June. It’s got 30 units and it’s managed by our partners All Good Northwest. We also have pre-existing alternative shelters that my team is responsible for. Those are Bipoc Village and Queer Affinity Village. But alternative shelters are . . . we’re innovating, but it’s definitely something that’s been in Portland for a long time.
Miller: As our listeners may remember, the initial plan or hope was for all these six officially Safe Rest Villages to be up and running last year. What have the challenges been in terms of timing?
Montez: There’s a lot of challenges. And first, I appreciate ambitious goals and timelines. There’s been a fire under us, all of us doing this work since we started last year. I’ve been in this position a little over a year and my team has been on for about a year, and there’s a little bit of a perfect storm. This is a government program with federal funding. We’re also working through a pandemic and all of the challenges that has entailed. And then most recently, I think anyone who understands or has done a construction project, we have vendors that are building units for us that are dealing with all of the same global shipping challenges that everyone else has. So this is a large project and it takes the time that it takes.
Miller: What is your projected timeline right now for all six of these Safe Rest Villages to be up and running with people living in them?
Montez: We have two sites that are under construction right now. The Menlo Park Safe Rest Village in East Portland, which you mentioned will be 60 units there. Our goal was to have it completed by the end of this month. And we keep hearing from our contractors that there’s something, you know, this is the last challenge was windows, It’s been hard to get windows. some of our contractors about our time getting latches and a few months ago it was offensive material. So, we will have the Menlo Park Safe Rest Village operational open in october. We’re also wrapping up construction with the Sunderland RV Safe Park this month. And then our other sites, Reedway, Peninsula crossing, NW Naito, are in some stage of permitting and planning. So we’re doing our best, we’re working as quickly as we can to have all of the sites constructed by the end of this year. We’re also working with our partners at the joint office to identify shelter operators, so that once the sites are constructed, we can get them up and running.
Miller: At one point there was a list of something like 100 potential sites. How were those narrowed down?
Montez: That’s correct.We started looking at city-owned properties. We looked at ways that we got a lot of information. There were 100 sites. We looked at the geographic distribution across the city. We looked at the size of the site. Was it paved? Does it have access nearby to transportation? Are there other of those amenities that everybody needs access to nearby? And some of it came down to willing partners. We weren’t able right off the bat to get all city owned properties. So we started reaching out to other jurisdictional partners. We’re really grateful for folks like Trimet and the Port of Portland, who’ve been really creative with us. So it’s a combination of the size of the property, the location of the property, the nearby amenities, and willing partners, and that helped us narrow down to our six locations.
Miller: About two weeks ago, you took part in what seemed like a pretty contentious meeting with residents of the Pearl District, about citing a Safe Rest Village on NW Naito. A lot of the people were concerned about crime and safety. Broadly, how do you approach these issues? And what do you say to residents who say ‘I don’t want this village here. I’m afraid for my own safety.’?
Montez: I will say that I understand folks are coming from a fearful place. This is unknown. We’ve all been living through really challenging times during this pandemic. And I think a lot of it really is fear, and a misconception or misinformation about people that are living outside. And I consistently come from a place, people that I dearly love have experienced houselessness and in my personal experience, houselessness, like poverty, is generational. My grandparents lived in a tent on a beach in Depoe Bay with six small children. Three of those children, my aunt, my uncle and my mom, went on to experience houselessness as adults. My mom had two small children. So then I grew up experiencing housing insecurity and houselessness multiple times as a young person.Other members of my team have also been unsheltered here in Portland. And I think that’s maybe the hardest part, is hearing from neighbors who are afraid of the impact they’re seeing from camping, and from folks who are camping and living outside and not getting connected to services. So we’re constantly talking about that, trying to work through some of getting past that daily stigmatizing and demonizing of unhoused people. And reminding folks that in the Safe Rest Villages, folks that are experiencing homelessness the village, the shelter participants, are getting stable, they’re getting dignity, they’re having private place, they get access to the basic needs that we all have: sanitation and hygiene and food and a locking door. And then they’re also connected to services, and that’s a very different situation. At the Multnomah Safe Rest Village, we heard very similar fears from the community about what having Safe Rest Village in their neighborhood would mean. It’s been open for three months, and that perception has shifted. There are folks in the neighborhood that are super supportive . . .
Miller: Folks that weren’t before?
Montez: They were hesitant before and they’re coming around, right? So people from the Multnomah Neighborhood Association let folks know that the impacts that they’re seeing from camping have been less around the shelter since the shelter opened. The West Hills Christian School, said they don’t even notice that the village is there. And it’s not very far from their school. We’ve had media drive by the Multnomah Safe Rest Village and say that it was clear that it was cleaner around the Multnomah Safe Rest Village than it was in other areas of the neighborhood. So some of those fears of the unknown, those are just not coming to fruition. And instead, we’re starting to see community support being generated around the village.
Miller: One of the specific questions that has come up in the past and and may still be coming up a request for how you or operators will run these is to have to require criminal background checks for residents of these villages. How do you respond to that request?
Montez: Two things: part of that is . . . it’s a little bit of a complicated answer, because that is in the realm of our shelter operators and the Joint Office of Homeless Services who contracts our shelter operators.
Miller: I should say for folks who haven’t heard that phrase before, this is because homeless services for a couple of years now, are a combined effort between the City of Portland and Multnomah County, that’s the Joint Office you’re talking about.
Montez: That’s correct. Yes. [Cat meows in background] And my cat has joined the conversation!
Miller: He totally agrees about my definition of the Joint Office! So, you’re saying that it’s complicated because it has to do with the way they’re going to approach the operators or the or the joint office, the way they’re going to approach the operations of these villages. But from the city’s perspective, would it be appropriate to require background checks?
Montez: So these are low barrier adult shelters, and low barriers to entry. We are trying to remove barriers for folks that want to get into shelter. So folks are allowed to bring their pets to these shelters. They’re allowed to have partners, they’re allowed to bring personal belongings and they’re able to stay there 24/7. And that’s different than some other shelters, and other congregate shelters. There’s also staff on site 24/7, the shelter operators, they know the shelter participants, they know the villagers. So there’s a different level of supervision and community that happens. Shelter participants also, when they go to a Safe Rest Village, they have to agree to a code of conduct. They’re engaging in case management, and they’re working towards getting their barriers to housing removed. And some of those barriers to housing are some of the same things that we would find in a criminal background check. And I think that there’s certain populations that are overrepresented in our unsheltered houseless folks, right? Like communities of color are overrepresented as living on the streets than we identify as a person of color are in the general population.And there’s a larger conversation around what that means for potentially criminal records, and that is stuff that is managed by Multnomah County. Another sort of piece of it, I think, it goes back to that fear in this stigmatizing and demonizing folks that are unhoused. I would ask . . . sometimes it’s really about this idea that unhoused folks who are not getting their needs met are criminals. And we see that that changes when folks are getting their needs met.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in, we are talking right now with Chariti Montez, the Houseless Strategies Manager for the Safe Rest Villages program for the City of Portland. You mentioned the service providers that are going to be actually running these villages. Back in May, All Good Northwest, which was managing Old Town’s homeless village, they said they were going to close it because of, quote, ‘daily and nightly gunfire and gun activity in the area’. That came from the director of the nonprofit as quoted in Willamette Week. What did that mean for your work broadly, to have an operator say we were not going to run this place anymore because in this particular place, the broader context of gun violence makes this unsafe?
Montez: So shelters open and close all of the time, and that shelter the Old town village was started similarly with the bipoc village and the queer affinity village at the beginning of the pandemic. And those three sites, the city with a partnership with the county and other service providers started those in response to the pandemic. And they kind of started at that time, I think everybody thought the pandemic was gonna last like three months and we’re going to get back to normal. We know that’s not the case now. But we already had been going through a process of changing and upgrading those locations. Two of the sites, the bipoc village in the queer affinity village, we relocated them. My team did that in the last year. So closing Old town village made sense at the time. It did add to our workload. We were responsible for decommissioning that site. But I think that some of it is, is that the right location? I don’t know, but what I do know is that we want to make sure that we have Safe Rest Villages distributed geographically throughout the city, so that we can meet unhoused folks where they are. And at the Multnomah Safe Rest Village, which All Good Northwest does manage, I was there last month. We were having a community barbecue. So they had invited folks from the neighborhood to come share a meal. One of the staff members from all good had smoked a brisket the day before. It was just a really lovely day. Shelter participants had their dogs out on leash. There’s a shelter cat, and I don’t think cats are known for their tolerance of high stress situations, laughing because you just saw my cat. And it was just a really lovely, it felt very different. And in that sort of environment folks are able to sort of that fight or flight from living on the street, can calm down, folks can get stable, folks can start to engage with case management. Multnomah Village has only been open for three months, and four people have already been placed in housing. They did a job fair at Multnomah village recently, and people were getting, a local hairstylist donated their time for participants to get haircuts. It’s just a very different environment, a restorative environment, and that is really what Commissioner Ryan’s vision was for the Safe Rest Villages from the beginning.
Miller: In terms of winning over either skeptical or fearful, housed neighbors . . . to go back to these two stories right now of people, say in the Pearl District who don’t want a village to go in near them, and Multnomah Village where there is one, and you say that the people there are are basically fine with it. Are you at this point in the place where you have no choice but to go forward and to say ‘trust me, it’ll work out’ even if people are saying ‘we don’t want this’ and then just hoping that in the end they will come to see that things are okay? I mean, is that where you’re left?
Montez: Well, it’s not just trust me. And I appreciate Commissioner Ryan and others on the city council have been sort of removing barriers. We do a lot of community engagement. We have partners of the city that are helping to address some of the concerns. And we are developing good neighbor agreements with all of our communities, that include the Safe Rest Village program, our impact reduction program, the joint office, the shelter operator and the community. And I think that there’s a way for us to continue building that relationship. So it’s not just just ‘trust me and it will be good in the end’. It’s ‘trust us, work with us’. See the successes that we’re having. Know that we can continue. We will be at the table with the communities as these shelters move forward, and we can work on solving any issues that arise together.
Miller: Charity Montez. Thanks very much for joining us today.
Montez: Thanks Dave.
Miller: That’s Chariti Montez, the houselessness strategies manager for the Safe Rest Villages program for the City of Portland.
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