Talking About Horrible Things with Portland's Foremost Tonya Harding Expert
It's been five months since Portland City Council, at the urging of Commissioner Nick Fish, rolled out the red carpet for a year-long "overnight sleeping" pilot program that would allow limited numbers of homeless Portlanders living in cars or campers to find nighttime refuge in the parking lots of sympathetic churches and nonprofits.
And now, after spending weeks this year refining the guidelines for the program, the city has finally found its first taker. Moreland Presbyterian Church is planning to host a single vehicle on its small lot, the Mercury has learned.
But while city officials, church leaders, and housing advocates had planned on a quiet launch over the next few weeks—maybe hoping any skeptical neighbors wouldn't even notice the low-impact program until it was well under way, if at all—that's not what's happened.
According to emails and other documents obtained through a public records request, a handful of neighbors who feel blind-sided by news of the project are actively trying to pressure the church into rethinking the project, if not abandon it outright. And some of that opposition, issued in emails to the church, City Commissioner Nick Fish, and the Portland Housing Bureau, has come off uncomfortably ugly.
Instead of looking at the actual details of Moreland's version of the program—the church will host just just one family or a single woman referred by a housing-services nonprofit—some critics are trading in wildly flagrant stereotypes about the homeless and flogging the unfounded fear that the church is really looking to host a violent, addict-filled homeless camp.
Check out what one neighbor, Brandt Boisseranc, wrote to Fish earlier this month:
My wife works very hard for a medical software company. Last year, she was walking past a home during the time that a homeless man was raping, sodomizing and robbing a woman whose home he had broken into. Last month, she came upon a car prowler who was a homeless man who could have cared less that she saw the crime he was committing. Now she is going to have to curtail her walks in her own neighborhood for her safety because of decisions that she was not allowed to participate in.
My neighbors already feel obligated to bring their children indoors when transients frequent our neighborhood on Tuesdays, which is recycling day. And now they have more reason to be concerned about their children’s safety. This does not even mention the possibility that their children will be exposed to sights and sounds that they have no business seeing at their age—in their own front yard.
The woman that I mentioned who lives across the street from the church recently bought the house from Westmoreland [sic] Presbyterian Church and has spent tens of thousands of dollars restoring the house. She has told me that she never would have bought the house had she known that a homeless camp in the church parking lot was a possibility. And she feels that she will likely be unable to sell because of the burden of disclosure regarding the homeless camping. Where is the justice in her situation?
Not all the neighbors who've complained are as dramatic—but what they see as a lack of notice by the church, coupled with the kind of incorrect information neighbors like Boisseranc are sharing, has inflamed passions in an otherwise collegial part of town.
"This has already divided this very cohesive several block area," Phyllis Boyer wrote the Housing Bureau. "I'm very angry about that as I have lived here since 1988. I wonder if this is what the city had in mind when it passed this resolution so quickly."
The debate is both overshadowing the good step forward the program represents—at the same time as it highlights precisely why it's needed. People who don't come downtown and follow homelessness issues need to be reminded about one of the peculiar elements of life on the streets. Sometimes people who don't have a house don't look like they don't have a house. The Portland program is modeled on one in Eugene, and others up and down the West Coast.
So now, to soothe concerns and answer any questions that might be ricocheting around the neighborhood, the church is planning a meeting at 7 pm June 4. The church, as required by the city, had previously notified its immediate neighbors, and it's also asked a congregant to run point on the issue.
Pastor Tom McKnight said he was troubled when he saw a flier being passed around that had the words "homeless camp" on it. He's hoping the meeting will be a chance to clear the air and share the real story about what the church is proposing to do.
The reality of this is were' talking about one car that would be occupied by a single woman or a woman and children, and whoever would be here would have worked with JOIN," a transitional housing services provide, McKnight says, taking pains not to be judgmental about the program's more vocal critics. "We've tried—publicly—to say this. I've been very clear about that.... It's fair to say there's more opposition than we would have anticipated."
Worth mentioning is that the church's program, with one car, is actually less involved than what the city allows, four vehicles. Here's the specifics of Moreland's program, from an email sent back to Boisseranc by the church's facilitator, a congregant named Becky Mowe.
Moreland PC's Session, the church's governing body, met and agreed unanimously that this project be implemented. It is is clearly within the mission of the church, and it will be periodically re-evaluated for effectiveness and local impact. We are not implementing this program impulsively or without precedent. The city of Eugene has been doing a similar thing since 1995, allowing parking not only in non-profits' lots, but also in commercial lots; there are currently 22 participating lots in Eugene. In Eugene, the city subsidizes port-a-potties; Moreland PC will pay for one itself out of church funds. There are other churches in Portland who are also developing programs; I have been in close touch with two of them—Montavilla United Methodist and Westminster Presbyterian.
This is what we plan to do—
1. We will host a single vehicle occupied by a person working with and referred by JOIN's workers. The city permits 4, but we are limiting our program and our small lot to one vehicle.
2. The vehicle will be parked in the southwest corner of our lot, screened from view by our large van, our storage unit, and the fence on the south side.
3. The vehicle owner will display on the windshield a Guest Permit provided by the church which will show the vehicle license # and valid dates.
4. The vehicle owner, before parking in the lot, will review and sign an agreement with the church Please see attachment.
5. Guests will only occupy the parking lot between 10 PM and 7:30 AM.
6. Guests will be limited to single women or families, who are screened by JOIN, working with a caseworker, and moving toward permanent housing. Women and families are the most vulnerable on the street.
7. The vehicle will also display a list of names and contact information for 4 to 6 church members who can be called if issues arise, day or night, as well as information for reaching the JOIN caseworker. My name will be on top of the list; note that I live a block from the church, and have done face to face volunteer work with the homeless for two decades at Operation Nightwatch.
Marc Jolin of JOIN, who'd be helping Moreland find a guest, says the whole point is that the arrangement would be temporary and not entrenched.
"We don't envision that people would be living in their vehicles for extended periods of time," he says.
"The idea here is we have folks who are sleeping in their vehicles, but they're not in safe locations. This gives them a place to be safe overnight and focuses their attention and energies on the work of getting into a permanent place to live."
Update 5:30 PM: I spoke with Boisseranc, who was returning my message and hadn't yet read this post (and was way more soft-spoken than the emails might indicate). And he wants to make one thing very clear: "There isn't a single person in my neighborhood who doesn't feel strongly about helping the homeless." Because I quoted liberally from his emails, I'm going to provide ample space for context/explanation here.
First, he says he stands behind his emails, and a demand to scuttle the program as currently constructed, because he doesn't think Moreland (and the city) did enough to get neighbors to buy in—nor have they done enough, he says, to make neighbors feel better by providing more details about who might be hosted in the parking lot and how the vetting process will work specifically.
"If I took a tone," says Boisseranc, a registered nurse who volunteers at the Free Clinic, "it was because I was insulted by the approach not because I don't care about the homeless... The only reason we're having the June 4 meeting is because we're forcing them. They're starting to give us information. But it may be too late."
And while he did say he feels "really good" that JOIN will be working with the church to vet guestshe also wishes "we would have had more time to talk to them."
He's not convinced the vetting will work or that Moreland won't one day loosen its standards for the program—citing "trust" issues, despite what the church is saying—meaning people with more serious addiction or mental health issues might be in the area. He worried that even a single woman with kids could be an issue if, say, an angry or violent husband tracks her down.
"That scares me," he says. "It could be more than what these churches and nonprofits can handle."
He says churches themselves might be better than their parking lots.
"Tell me about it first," he says, "and maybe I'll even volunteer."
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