On the same day the Portland City Council approved another contract extension for Dignity Village, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild sent Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish a letter demanding that they offer the same legal status to Right 2 Dream Too—the "rest area" for the homeless that's been operating since October at NW 4th and Burnside.
The letter is signed by the lawyer, Mark Kramer, and R2D2's vice chairman and lead spokesman, Ibrahim Mubarak. It notes that state law says cities may set up a total of two "transitional housing campgrounds," and it asks for a meeting to start the process. It went to Fish because he oversees the housing bureau and to Saltzman because he oversees the city's code enforcement bureau.
The letter about R2D2 comes not only amid discussions about Dignity Village, but also during a high-profile hunger strike by former mayoral candidate Cameron Whitten, who's made the fate of the well-regarded rest area one of the central themes of his protest.
The city has declared the site an illegal recreational campground and has been fining its landlords since the winter. The landlords, Michael Wright and Dan Cossette, have so far made R2D2 come up with the scratch for the thousands in fines they've incurred. According to the letter, the landlords have been fined more than $6,000, with one of the co-owners giving the city $4,000 so far.
"Portland has been a leader in acknowledging and addressing the needs of the homeless," the letter says. "It has been creative in meeting the city's health and safety needs, while at the same time allowing for necessary programs to assist the homeless. We hope and trust that history continues and look forward to meeting with you and your staff to resolve this issue."
The letter also sees a model in the deal that led to the city's new car-camping experiment in church and nonprofit parking lots. In that case, Fish and Saltzman stopped short of making car-camping legal but did get council to approve a resolution directing the city's code enforcers not to enforce city code.
"I appreciate the tone and the content of this letter," says Fish, who mentioned a list of recent housing bureau successes—Bud Clark Commons, the community push for full safety-net funding, the imminent settlement of the city's camping lawsuit, the car-camping plan—as proof "that my housing team has demonstrated over the past few years that they are always open to new ideas and new approaches.... We will respond in kind. We will take it seriously."
But Fish also cautioned he doesn't "see a clear path forward for how to address this problem," and that he's hesitant to "normalize" a system in which people would choose to live on the streets or in tents instead of more permanent housing. Many advocates disagree with that line of thinking, arguing that providing places like R2D2 and Dignity Village is a lifeline for people who can't access limited shelter spaces at night or who find themselves on waiting lists for other programs.
Saltzman's office, meanwhile, has not returned a request for comment. Bu one thing is certain: This effort won't fly if advocates insist on staying at their current location.
Wright and Cossette have battled the city for years after inspectors, cops, and firefighters, at the behest of Commissioner Randy Leonard, shuttered the adult bookstore that used to occupy what's since become a vacant lot in a highly visible part of town. Wright used to have a sign up at the site targeting Leonard, now he's got one ripping into Saltzman.
Kramer and Mubarak, in their letter, say that Wright supports "the process suggested here" and copied him on the letter, suggesting they want to stay where they are. But all that bad blood, if moving the campsite doesn't emerge as a real option, appears likely to get in the way of a compromise.
Saltzman told me, even before I'd heard about the letter, that he considers Wright "a convicted murderer who hates the city" and that "we're not going to go there" when it comes to waiving fines. Leonard tells me he's told Whitten all about Wright's past and that he's told R2D2 that he's "open to moving these folks somewhere else" and find a place to "legalize" what they're doing.
"But," he says, "not on that piece of property."
A meeting, if it happens, could come as soon as August.
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