The city of Portland is moving forward with a controversial plan to create several massive outdoor homeless encampments throughout the city. According to Mayor Ted Wheeler’s Office, the city has closed its request for proposals to operate the outdoor shelters and it’s reviewing the submissions.
The idea is partly based on outdoor shelters run by Urban Alchemy, a group based in California. Several members of the mayor’s office visited sites run by the nonprofit in Los Angeles and San Francisco last year.
OPB’s All Things Considered host Tiffany Camhi talked to Kirkpatrick Tyler, Urban Alchemy’s chief of governmental and community affairs, about the group’s background and its bid to run camps in Portland.
Tiffany Camhi: So Urban Alchemy has an impressive resume on paper: It boasts that it runs several hygiene services and emergency shelter programs for the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. How did this organization start out?
Kirkpatrick Tyler: Urban Alchemy is actually an offshoot of a 25-year-old organization called Hunters Point Family in San Francisco. The primary focus of that organization was to provide opportunities and diversion for at-risk youth in that community. At about year 22, there was a call and opportunity that opened up jobs - primarily for folks who were formerly incarcerated. That’s really where we picked up the street cleaning and mobile hygiene. While a lot of our programming centers around homeless services, who we are as an organization is a social enterprise focused on providing employment and career opportunities for the formerly incarcerated.
Camhi: Can you talk a little bit more about how Urban Alchemy got its contracts, specifically the no-bid contracts with San Francisco at the beginning of the pandemic?
Tyler: Because the pandemic was an emergency, municipalities were not going through full bid processes. And because there were emergency declarations, those opportunities would come about for organizations that had the capacity to fill them. Many organizations were shutting down, many folks were getting sick and [cities] had to do something in a rapid phase so that we could get folks the support that they needed. Outside of that, all of our contracts we’ve bid for - including the one that we’re applying for in Portland, Ore.
Camhi: What has your organization learned from operating large outdoor shelters? What are some takeaways?
Tyler: So I think most importantly what we’ve learned is that a “safe sleep village” provides a safe place that gets people off of the streets and protects them from being victimized, harmed and shifted around when they’re kind of left without any type of support.
Camhi: Urban Alchemy has scaled up quickly since the pandemic began. Does it have the capacity to expand in Portland?
Tyler: Yeah, absolutely. We’ve been reaching out to a number of community partners. We’ve been reaching out to partners in the judicial system so that we can create pathways and pipelines for men and women who either have recently been released or about to be released. We’ve been able to do it successfully in Los Angeles and in Texas. I believe we’ll be able to do the same in Portland if we’re granted the opportunity to serve.
Camhi: Homelessness is an issue across the nation and it’s especially prevalent on the West Coast. But temporary solutions that might work in San Francisco or Seattle might not translate in Portland. Can you expand a little bit more about why you think the Urban Alchemy model would be a good fit for Portland?
Tyler: I know one of the things that folks highlight is this doesn’t take people out of the cold. Urban Alchemy is really pragmatic and realistic. There are people who are in the cold, sleeping in their tents every single year. One of the things that we’ve learned how to do is to listen to people and see how they survive. And then we put resources, expertise and energy into making that a more efficient model. I think the other thing is, as much as they can criticize, you have to answer - while we’re working on long-term strategies, while we’re building housing, while we’re building more shelters: where is it that we’re offering people to go to get supported?
It feels like everybody agrees that something has to be done. I think the process has been the place where there’s kind of been static, but it’s all been respectable and amicable. I believe that if we’re awarded this opportunity that we will have some really great working relationships with community partners.
Camhi: What kind of roadblocks do you foresee in establishing Urban Alchemy in Portland?
Tyler: I think that Portland is a really strong community that wants to have solutions. We’ve been able to build some great relationships or, at least, the beginning of conversations to great relationships. I really think the biggest challenge may be our ramp-up around things like weather and temperature. How do we make sure that guests are protected in those spaces?
Camhi: Urban Alchemy is facing several lawsuits over its services, some that allege civil rights violations from people experiencing homelessness. How do you square these allegations while bidding for a contract in a new city?
Tyler: So all of those are being settled. There are some that just aren’t true. The most egregious and most troubling all, if you do any further research, you’ll see that they’ve been disproven. Those places where there were challenges, you’ll see that Urban Alchemy immediately and always responded in a way that resolved the issue and that continued to move forward in our service of the residents that we’ve had the opportunity to serve.