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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Overnight Sleeping" Plan Advances—Amid Spirited Defense of Old Town Tent Refuge

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Dec 21, 2011 at 12:29 PM

As promised by Commissioner Nick Fish's office last week, a pilot project allowing "overnight sleeping" in vehicles parked on religious organizations' and nonprofits' parking lots sailed through Portland City Council this morning.

But praise for the small-scale plan—merely one attempt to offer relief for the city's ever-increasing homeless population—was quickly overwhelmed by demands from activists and the houseless that the city also find a way to stay fines and code penalties aimed at Right 2 Dream Too, the self-managed tent refuge that sprang up two months ago at NW 4th and Burnside.

Their argument: Right now if you're homeless in Portland, and you can't make it into a crowded shelter but want to sleep some place somewhat safe and dry—whether in a car or a tent or a sleeping bag—you'll have to break the law. Yes, the pilot project will help people with cars, they said, but what about all the people who can't afford a vehicle. Or insurance. Or registration.

"It's a tentative step. It's a timid step," said Erick Heroux, an Occupy Portland organizer, one of the two dozen people who testified on the resolution—often to applause, in a departure from the decorum typically enforced by Mayor Sam Adams (who, along with Amanda Fritz, was absent today.)

"You're caught between a rock and a hard place," Heroux followed, "between the Portland Business Alliance and all the people who are here today [The PBA sent a letter offering qualified support but also asking Fish to clearly state that this won't lead to legal camping]."

The response—a cathartic chance for the community to vent and reflect about a problem that's gotten worse even as the city nears the end of its 10-year plan to end homelessness—was hardly a surprise for city commissioners. Fish began the hearing by reminding everyone that while he thought this was a "common-sense, pragmatic" idea, he also understood that "this is not a substitute" for affordable housing.

"This is the faith community asking us for another tool where they can provide another benefit," Fish offered in his closing remarks—defending the millions his housing bureau has spent on building Bud Clark Commons, adding winter shelter space, providing rent assistance, and rehabbing SROs into affordable spaces.

"We have a Republican presidential primary going on where the majority of candidates have called for the elimination of the Housing and Urban Development Department," Fish said, noting that much of the cash he has to work with as housing commissioner comes from the federal government. "That's a debate were having as a country... Engage in the national debate so that federal funding is strengthened not weakened."

The hearing started off calmly, with invited speakers from the housing bureau, Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO), and homelessness advocacy group JOIN all offering moving testimony in support of the plan.

EMO's David Leslie said he pushed for the proposal because he's seen an increasing number of families forced to live in their cars with no sign the economy will soon be turning around. He also says hosting those without housing will help place the issue squarely in the face of congregants and parishioners who might be persuaded, in turn, to become advocates for more resources.

JOIN's Marc Jolin also said he sees more families on the streets living in cars, and that "they live in constant fear that they'll be ticketed, told to leave, or towed."

But after the formal presentations, the meeting, at times, erupted with feistiness. Speaker after speaker, most of them homeless now or at some point in their past, wondered why Fish and Commissioner Dan Saltzman were willing to keep code enforcers from taking on car camping but not keep them from also fining and citing Right 2 Dream Too.

Many spoke about how successful R2D2 has been—no public safety calls, people lofted into jobs and into permanent housing, good ties with once-skeptical neighbors, etc.

"You, our commissioners, have the power to step in and work with the people of Right 2 Dream Too," said one woman, Trillium Shannon. "We need not one but a multitude of creative solutions. We ned to stop criminalizing people exercising their right to survive."

"For you to sit up here and act like you have some kind of solution is as close to an idiocracy as I've seen in this city," said another speaker, Jesse Sponberg, an Occupy Portland volunteer who said he slept outside last night in solidarity with those who have no choice.

Sponberg then asked what the plan would be in 12 months when the project comes up for review and the need among the homeless population is still overwhelming.

"What's your reconsideration going to be? Build more churches?"

Others also raised the Oregonian's expose on the Headwaters Apartments in Southwest Portland—a housing complex for well-off Portlanders built (before Fish's time) with money that ought to have been earmarked for affordable housing.

One interesting thing: When Fish addressed the PBA's letter in the meeting, to get it on the record, he pointedly chose not to mention their request that he "include a reaffirmation that the city's camping ordinance will remain enforced," even though the PBA is "concerned that the city is sending a message that other codes may not be enforced over time," something that "could cause grave unintended consequences."

Fish said, after the meeting, that he "didn't think that was necessary" to include, since the resolution doesn't explicitly promise to upend the camping ban.

He also told me, after the meeting, that he saw his pilot project and the effort to preserve R2D2 as "separate issues," even though, in what he acknowledged was a "fair point," both would rely on telling code enforcers not to do their appointed jobs and enforce city code.

Fish and officials like Housing Bureau Director Traci Manning both said they expected and accepted the criticism that the city isn't doing enough. They said it over and over again. Even that brought barbs. Sponberg walked out of the meeting while Fish gave his closing remarks, repeating "bullshit."

And when Fish asked those there to "help us make this pilot successful," Ibrahim Mubarak, a key organizer of R2D2 and also of Dignity Village, offered up "help us make our pilot successful."

Afterward, Fish told reporters "I understand that frustration. I wish I had the power to end homelessness. But I'm just a city commissioner."

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