Portland’s Longtime Homeless Camp Is Moving, but Underlying Problems Persist

Portland homeless
Portland officials have announced plans to relocate a longtime homeless encampment known as Right 2 Dream Too. (Ellen M. Banner / Seattle Times)

Depending on the point of view, Portland’s most visible homeless encampment has become either a terrible eyesore, or an innovative way to house the unsheltered, with nonprofit status, a board of directors and even a makeshift computer lab.

But now, after 5½ years of controversy that have tested the patience of even this famously progressive city, the encampment known as Right 2 Dream Too is moving.

Portland officials announced Thursday that it reached an agreement with board members to move the camp inhabitants onto land near the Moda Center, where the Trail Blazers play basketball.

R2DToo, as the camp is known, is a funky amalgam of tents, pieces of wood and plastic sheeting, with about 80 or 90 people sleeping there each night. It’s survived partly with aid from local charities and restaurants that donate food and other services.

The agreement brings to a close R2DToo’s stay on a 7,762-square-foot plot of vacant, private land across the street from a “boutique” hotel development. Three times, a relocation site was identified but opposition prevented a move. Details are still being worked out, but the move is to occur within 60 days.

Yet the announcement doesn’t change the thorny underlying issues for which the group has become a lightning rod. The West Coast has seen an uptick in homelessness even as national levels have declined slightly, a report released in November shows. Portland declared a homeless “state of emergency” a few days after Los Angeles in 2015, and last year extended it through October 2017.

“We think that homelessness and housing is far and away the No. 1 issue for people in Portland,” Portland Business Alliance President Sandra McDonough said.

At its core, the question posed by extra-official entities like R2DToo is: When there’s never enough money for shelters and affordable housing, should cities work more closely with self-governing grass-roots encampments?

Around 3,800 are unsheltered in Portland, according to the most recent official numbers — almost certain to grow when the results of the January 2017 count are released.

Detractors — including Mayor Ted Wheeler and McDonough — say self-organized “off the grid” communities like R2DToo are illegal and unhealthy, and distract from the difficult work of developing shelter space and affordable housing.

Supporters — including two members of the city council — see R2DToo as a “replicable” model: low-cost and a way to connect and motivate unsheltered people.

It even caught the eye of Tam Nguyen, a councilman from San Jose, who spent a night at R2DToo in 2016. He said he doesn’t see such camps as a permanent solution, but a way “to help release the huge pressure of the homeless people intruding into the neighborhood homes, streets, parks and curbsides.”

“I’ve been pushing very hard for this in San Jose,” Nguyen said. “I think we should explore that option everywhere.” He said that two years ago a large, unorganized camp known as the Jungle closed in San Jose. “Now people are swarming all over my neighborhood,” he said.

Though ramshackle in appearance, R2DToo is sophisticated. It’s registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, seeks donations on its website and though Portland police say there’s no way to quantify the camp’s impact on crime, R2DToo’s been easy to work with.

“Central precinct officers have had very few problems with R2DToo, and that’s really a credit to the people that run that,” spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said.

R2DToo cofounder Ibrahim Mubarak said the camp has helped over 400 people find housing, 392 find work, 38 quit drug habits and “18 women kept their babies.”

Michael Cox, Mayor Wheeler’s communications director, admits Portland’s “like 28,000 affordable units down.” Last November, the city’s voters passed a $258-million bond to help create and preserve low-income housing, but tent camps continue to grow throughout the metro area.

Though Wheeler’s plans call for more “tiny houses,” increased shelter spaces and affordable housing, the “strategy is not to see several more R2DToos,” Cox said. “What we’re really looking for is humane alternatives to sleeping in tents.”

McDonough, of the business alliance, agrees it’s not humane for people to sleep in camps. “What we have an issue around is, one, we think people should be sleeping inside and, two, it’s been illegal on that site from day one,” she said.

Last year, Wheeler said, city and county agencies moved more than 4,500 from homelessness into housing, and increased shelter capacity by nearly 800.

Homer Williams, among the city’s most prominent developers, started a nonprofit last year aimed at duplicating lessons from San Antonio’s Haven for Hope, a shelter that has been visited by 250 cities to study its example. Now, Oregon Harbor of Hope is working with Portland officials to find publicly owned spaces for low-barrier shelters based on the San Antonio model.

Last fall, the group picked R2DToo cofounder Mubarak as director of a planned large-scale shelter. The developers promised to attract millions in private sector money, but failed to enlist the support of a big local services nonprofit. Their proposal was denied by the city.

South of Portland in Eugene, a program called Rest Stop borrowed ideas like “safe sleeping” from R2DToo but decided to partner with a nonprofit sponsor, said former Mayor Kitty Piercy.

“We chose a different path but learned a lot from them,” Piercy said of her visits to R2DToo.

Cox says there are “successes to be pointed to” at R2DToo, but it’s “not a government approach; it’s separate from local government.”

Cox, while acknowledging R2DToo’s successes, said, “The goal is ultimately to move people from homelessness to housing and bring them back into the full societal fold. That’s different from the vision of R2DToo, which is a permanent, self-governed, off-the-grid construct.”

Schmid is a special correspondent.

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