Portland mayor confirms first city-sanctioned homeless camp site

PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler has confirmed that the first of six planned large-scale sanctioned homeless camping sites will be located in inner Southeast Portland on a vacant lot near Powell Boulevard and 13th Avenue.

Wheeler detailed the site selection at a news conference Thursday morning, and he also announced that the city has partnered with a California-based nonprofit called Urban Alchemy to run the first site.

Wheeler proposed the mass sanctioned campsites plan last fall, coupled with a goal of phasing in a ban on unsanctioned camping elsewhere in the city. The city council approved the plan in November, and Wheeler’s office has been searching for suitable locations since then.

The city had not previously confirmed any of the locations, but the site at 1490 Southeast Gideon Street was reported to be under consideration last month along with another possible site in the Montavilla neighborhood, although the latter has now been removed from consideration.

Wheeler said Thursday that his goal was to have the Gideon Street site up and running by the summer. The site will initially have up to 100 tents with room for up to 150 people, he said, with access to basic services like food, restrooms, showers, electricity and storage.

There will be regular trash collection, and hazardous waste removal services both at the site and in a 1,000-foot area surrounding it, Wheeler said. It will also have a perimeter fence and security, accompanied by a ban on unsanctioned camping within 1,000 feet of the site.

No fires or cooking will be allowed, he said, and no alcohol or drug use will be allowed in public spaces. Weapons will need to be checked at the entrance. Urban Alchemy will also engage with neighboring residents and businesses, he said, and staff a 24-hour hotline to resolve issues.

The city does not yet have a signed lease on the site, he said, but has reached an agreement in principle on all the major pieces like duration, price and a timeline for the current owners to vacate.

Several staff from Urban Alchemy joined Wheeler at the news conference to discuss how the nonprofit will approach running the site. Urban Alchemy currently operates homeless service sites or shelters in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Austin, Texas.

Kirkpatrick Tyler from Urban Alchemy talked about the nonprofit’s Safe Sleep villages in San Francisco, which focus on creating places where homeless residents can feel secure and not in danger of being swept or having their belongings stolen.

The site will be staffed 24 hours a day and will be a weapons-free zone, he said, but the goal is not to take a policing approach. When Urban Alchemy took over a shelter site in Austin, he said, they removed metal detectors and bag scanners in favor of a voluntary bag search policy, with secure storage for weapons.

Many homeless residents have been traumatized by bad experiences in traditional shelters, he said, and have preferred the sense of independence and ownership that they get from being in their tents. Urban Alchemy’s approach tries to be mindful of those experiences, he said.

“It has allowed people, on their terms, to choose an option,” he said. “So often, we kind of try to show and tell unhoused residents what’s best for them. Safe Sleeps allows an option that can be selected by residents to engage on their terms, not to be lorded over or parented by an organization or by a city, but to be welcomed indoors in an environment that will keep them safe, an environment where they have people that are invested and engaged in their well-being and helping them to move forward.”

Watch the full news conference

Wheeler and policy advisor Skyler Brocker-Knapp said the other five sites are all in various stages of development, with two of them farther along than the others. Wheeler added that the $27 million approved by the city council will cover the first three sites, and said he hoped Multnomah County could fund the others.

Wheeler said Urban Alchemy would likely become the service provider for additional camping sites, using the Gideon Street site as their local headquarters, but the city will want to hear from other interested groups too.

Wheeler spoke optimistically about getting homeless residents to move to camping sites voluntarily. City workers who polled homeless residents found that only about 20% of them said they’d be willing to move into congregate shelters, he said, but 70% of them said the campsite model would be preferable.

Wheeler said he wants to create incentive structures to encourage homeless residents to connect with services for things like behavioral health or drug treatment, but without forcing people to move into specific camp sites. There won’t be a time limit on how long residents can stay at the sites, he said.

“The whole point is to connect people to services,” he said. “I don’t view these as a permanent living solution for anyone. But it’ll take time and patience to connect to services and have them be successful. But the goal is to get these individuals off the streets.”

Broader homelessness strategy

Wheeler also released a video Wednesday outlining a broad strategy to address the city’s homeless crisis, ahead of the Thursday news conference. The sanctioned campsites, referred to by Wheeler as Temporary Alternative Shelter Sites, are a central component of the strategy he outlined in the video.

Wheeler framed the crisis as three overlapping issues: homelessness, behavioral health and substance use disorder. He said the city’s response plan has three main components: increased investment in affordable housing, moving unsheltered homeless residents closer to services and criminal justice referrals to incentivize people to seek housing, services and treatment.

The shelter sites are necessary to achieve the second goal, Wheeler said, adding that it’s currently impossible for the city to hire enough outreach workers to connect people with services because Portland’s homeless population is spread out over hundreds of small unsanctioned camps.

Wheeler also discussed a recent report from Multnomah County about homeless deaths in 2021, which found that 20% of Portland’s homicide victims that year were homeless and the average age of death among homeless residents was 48 for men and 46 for women.

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