Portland Mayor Wheeler unveils first location for city-run homeless camp

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
March 9, 2023 10:56 p.m. Updated: March 10, 2023 12:38 a.m.

Mayor Ted Wheeler has identified a Southeast Portland lot as the site for the first large, city-run homeless encampment — a key feature of his plan to end street camping.

“I know that people are tired of hearing us talk about addressing this issue,” Wheeler said at a Thursday press conference. “Today is about the direct action we are taking to move this project forward.”


Wheeler said the city has not yet finalized the lease with the current property owners, California-based rail construction company Stacy and Witbeck. But Wheeler said he is “very confident” that it will be completed soon.

The planned site is at 1490 SE Gideon Street, a lot just north of Southeast Powell Boulevard bounded by Southeast 13th Avenue and railroad tracks. The site is expected to house up to 150 unsheltered Portlanders in 100 tents, as well as offer two meals daily, restrooms, showers, locked storage, and a space for pets to go to the bathroom. The property will be fenced and have security monitoring a 1,000-foot perimeter area surrounding the location. Wheeler said Portland police will not be involved in those patrols.

The City Council first approved a plan in November to ban street camping by 2024 and create six city-run camps that can accommodate up to 250 people each. The plan, introduced jointly by Wheeler and City Commissioner Dan Ryan, was a clear response to Portlanders’ growing displeasure with the region’s persisting homeless crisis. The proposal received instant pushback from local civil rights organizations and homeless advocacy groups.

Since the November vote, Wheeler’s office has led the charge to identify landowners interested in leasing their property to the city to house these temporary camps — and to hire outside organizations to operate the encampments. On Wednesday, Wheeler announced that California-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy was selected to oversee the Southeast Gideon Street encampment, and will likely run several other planned camps.

Urban Alchemy has been running outdoor homeless encampments for the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco since 2020. The nonprofit touts its employees’ lived experience with homelessness and incarceration as key to running these communities in a humane and trauma-informed way. However, the nonprofit is facing several lawsuits, both for alleged labor violations and accusations of sexual abuse from an unhoused resident. Urban Alchemy leaders have denied all accusations.

Urban Alchemy government affairs representative Kirkpatrick Tyler explained Wednesday that Urban Alchemy will enforce a number of rules at the encampments, including a ban on weapons, fires, and alcohol and drug use in public spaces. Staff will search all residents’ bags before they’re allowed to enter the encampment, and will turn those away who don’t consent to the search.

Ian Clark-Johnson, another Urban Alchemy staffer, said Wednesday that any violence or crime on the property will be addressed by Urban Alchemy staff building relationships with residents and using de-escalation techniques — not by calling the police.


“We call it negotiating; we just start having conversations and build relationships,” Clark-Johnson said. “Planting a seed to build that trust.”

Tyler said the nonprofit uses what it calls a model of “safe sleep” encampments, an approach uniquely beneficial to people experiencing homelessness.

“So often we try to tell unhoused residents what’s best for them,” said Tyler. “Safe sleeps allow an option that can be selected by residents to engage on their terms, not to be lorded over or parented by an organization or a city.”

It’s not clear if Portland’s encampment model will match that description.

Wheeler’s proposal includes a vague plan to “eliminate” street camping by encouraging campers to move into one of the city’s encampments or another homeless shelter or face some type of penalty. Wheeler said he’s working with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office to create a referral system for unhoused people to avoid prosecution, but that the details have not been ironed out. On Wednesday, Wheeler did say the plan may involve offering to clear peoples’ criminal records in exchange for their agreement to move into an encampment or accept other services.

“We’re trying to create a non-law-enforcement approach to incentivize people into the services they need,” Wheeler said. “The goal here would be an effort to eliminate past sanctions — old warrants, old fines — in exchange for people being willing to participate in the kind of treatment necessary to recover their lives.”

Skyler Brocker-Knapp, a policy advisor for the mayor, said Wednesday that unhoused Portlanders will not be forced into the encampments. “It’s one option out of many,” she said.

Brocker-Knapp added that the city is close to finalizing lease agreements with two other property owners for city-run camps, and are in conversations with others interested in leasing their property.

The city does not have the funds required to purchase or operate all six planned camps. According to Wheeler, the $27 million city dollars approved by the council to bankroll the proposal will only cover the cost to open three encampments. Wheeler said he’s in talks with Multnomah County leaders and the governor’s office to have their governments commit funding to the proposal. So far, no officials from other government agencies have expressed public interest in fulfilling this ask.

Urban Alchemy has asked the city for $5 million to run one 150-person camp for a year. Its contract includes a staff of 60 workers.

The encampments are expected to stay open for about three years. Tyler said there will be no required move-out date for residents, but the intention is for each stay to be a temporary step toward more permanent housing. At other camps run by Urban Alchemy, Tyler said, people stay on average between three and nine months.

“A portion of what contributes to that is the availability of housing in the municipality,” Tyler said. “We can’t expect people to move into housing that we don’t have.”