By the end of the month, Portland intends to open the first of six planned large outdoor homeless shelters.
On Monday, local politicians met at the Clinton Triangle Temporary Alternative Shelter Site, located at Southeast Gideon Street and Southeast 13th Avenue, to preview the new shelter. The event carried a celebratory tone after months of delays and debate around the controversial program.
“While Portlanders navigate the complex and often years-long waiting lists for affordable housing, we must provide safe and stable shelter opportunities in the interim,” said Mayor Ted Wheeler at a morning press conference.
The city’s largest homeless shelter will hold 140 sleeping pods to accommodate an estimated 200 Portlanders experiencing homelessness. The site contains bathrooms, showers, laundry facilities, a dog run and a kitchen where local nonprofit Feed the Mass will provide at least one warm meal a day. Several of the pods and bathrooms are accessible for people with disabilities.
The space also offers 20 tents on wooden platforms for people who may not be comfortable sleeping indoors.
This program was first approved by Portland City Council in November in conjunction with a proposal to ban street camping by 2024, but has encountered a few delays along the way. It was originally designed to only offer tent shelters, but the state threatened to withhold funding until the city committed to building sleeping pods.
In April, Gov. Tina Kotek approved spending more than $6 million in state dollars to address homelessness in the metro region, allowing the city to purchase the sleeping pods. More recently, Multnomah County pledged to commit more than $4 million toward the program in its annual budget.
As of now, the city only has money to open and run three of these six planned large-scale outdoor shelters. Wheeler said that state lawmakers will discuss funding the additional sites once they see evidence that the initial three are effective.
“They want us to prove that we can make it work,” Wheeler said. “I am 100% confident that we will.”
Only half of the 140 sleeping pods were in place Monday. The site will be operational within the next two weeks, according to Skyler Brocker-Knapp, a policy advisor for Wheeler. The pods will not be immediately filled.
“We’ll start pretty slowly with the intake process,” Brocker-Knapp said. “Folks are coming from chronic homelessness… we need to give them time to adjust to this site. We don’t want to add too many folks at one time.”
People can only access a bed at the Clinton Triangle shelter site through a referral by a city outreach worker or nonprofit service provider. Anyone who shows up at the site’s entrance seeking shelter will be given a number to call to request a referral.
The site will be managed by a California-based nonprofit called Urban Alchemy, which has been operating outdoor homeless encampments in Los Angeles and San Francisco since 2020. The nonprofit focuses on hiring staff with lived experience with homelessness and incarceration, and has hired more than 100 Portlanders to run the shelters.
Some Portlanders have raised concerns with the nonprofit, as it is currently facing several lawsuits, both for alleged labor violations and accusations of sexual abuse from an unhoused resident. Urban Alchemy leaders have denied all accusations.
In April, Portland City Council approved a five-year contract for up to $50 million for Urban Alchemy to manage its mass shelter sites for people experiencing homelessness. Urban Alchemy estimates it will cost $5 million annually to operate one shelter.
Urban Alchemy said residents usually leave the California-based shelters after six months and they expect that to be the case in Portland, too.
The goal is to connect residents with permanent housing options that they can eventually move into, creating space for someone else to move into a sleeping pod. Multnomah County will be responsible for offering those services on site.
“At Multnomah County, we utilize housing first approach,” said Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson Monday. “In this model, housing first is never housing only. It means housing now, with services too. Our focus will be meeting them where they are and helping to access safe and stable housing.”
While the Portland metro region has a known shortage of affordable housing, Vega Pederson said she has confidence in the county’s Housing Multnomah Now program to swiftly create more housing options. Housing Multnomah Now offers incentives to private landlords to rent to previously homeless tenants with rental assistance from the county. The program’s rollout has been slowed due to state funding delays.
The city is expected to open the second mass outdoor shelter by the end of 2023. It has not yet released that site’s location.