PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In June 2021, small pop-up spots — Safe Rest Villages — were approved to be located across the city of Portland where homeless people could be moved quickly. But months later they still don’t exist.
The Safe Rest Villages were announced with great fanfare at the time, passed unanimously by the Portland City Council, with promises some of the 6 would be up and running in the Fall of 2021. Up until Thursday afternoon, only three had been proposed — downtown, East Burnside and Multnomah Village — and they are still months away from opening.
It’s just another example of why the City that Works is having such a hard time fixing its epidemic of problems.
The City of Portland wants to put a Safe Rest Village in the parking lot of the former Sears Armory near Multnomah Village. There will be about 30 pods, similar to communities built at the start of the pandemic on Portland’s Inner East Side and Old Town.
They would come with sanitation and social services to get people in some of the harshest homeless camps back on their feet.
“We’re concerned about that Portland homeless creep that we see downtown coming out into our neighborhoods,” said Moses Ross, the president of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association.
City Commissioner Dan Ryan, whose brother was homeless and died on Portland’s streets, is in charge of the plan. He’s been frustrated with slow progress on the overall crisis.
“We can’t be in denial any longer. So I would say, it’s almost like we have addicts and then we have enablers and that’s in a micro level, but it’s in a macro level,” Ryan told KOIN 6 News. “And the city and the county and services have been enabling this behavior to persist on our streets and we have to call it out.”
In November 2021, the Multnomah Neighborhood Association learned without warning Ryan’s office picked the armory site. Early this month, neighbors voted overwhelmingly to work with the Portland Housing Bureau and Ryan’s office in what’s called a “good neighbor agreement” to get their concerns addressed.
There are very different perspectives on how that evolved.
“The Multnomah Village Neighborhood, I’m sure you heard they were in pretty big opposition about us siting a village out in their neighborhood,” Ryan said. “But just recently they voted 73 to 20 in favor of moving forward with a ‘good neighbor agreement’. And that’s because we had a chance to do dialogue.”
For the record, the vote was 73-26.
But Ross indicated the association viewed it as unstoppable and opted to do the best they could to work with it.
“We certainly got that impression from the community forum with Dan Ryan and his office that there’s
not much more we can do to prevent it,” Ross said.
Some neighbors are concerned about noise, trash, crime, drugs and alcohol use — and the selection process.
“Dan Ryan’s been a bully. We neighbors aren’t obstacles,” said one resident named Kylie. “We should be treated as partners in this.”
122nd and Burnside
“The process in my opinion,” said Hazelwood Neighborhood Association President Arlene Kimura, “was flawed.”
Kimura and her association have similar frustrations after getting no warning a TriMet Park-and-Ride at 122nd and East Burnside was proposed as a Safe Rest Village site. She’s concerned plans for 60 pods is too many and will be an invitation for uncontrolled homeless camps to descend on the surrounding area.
Kimura doesn’t dismiss the notion of Ryan as a bully.
“I think that he is passionate about what he believes in. And he has such fervor that he is not willing to listen to anyone else. And, I don’t think he intends to be a bully, but I think that is the message that we are receiving from him that ‘I know best’ and ‘you better do what I tell you,'” she told KOIN 6 News.
Ryan took the criticism in stride.
“I say that when you’re a leader at a time like this in a crisis, you have to just take action and you’ve got to make Portland a better city,” he said.
“We will have actually a system to move people from the streets to stability. I hear what they’re saying, but they’re also the same people that are complaining that there are too many houseless people in their neighborhoods. And so I have to do something because that’s my job.”
Watch the full interview with Ryan at the bottom of the article.
Planning takes time
Opening Safe Rest Villages takes time because they take planning — negotiating lease agreements, designing layout and bringing in critical infrastructure like power, water and sewer.
Ryan’s office also had to back off on at least 2 sites, one at SE 45th and Harney after a KOIN 6 News investigation discovered the site is in a flood zone. Then in January Ryan’s office tried to use a Portland public school site.
But what happened to that idea is an example why Ryan’s office won’t release a list of 20 potential sites they’re considering.
“Before we knew it, it was leaked and the whole neighborhood came unglued and we hadn’t even had even a dotted line verbal agreement with PPS that that was a viable spot,” Ryan said. “So we ended up spending so much time on nothing.”
The Armory site
Overlooking the Armory site are neighbors on Ryan’s side, like Kelvin Heljeson.
“It seems like a reasonable place to put it,” Heljeson said. “I’m not concerned about noise, and I’m not about safety. I have two young children and I’d rather them grow up in a society that takes care of the most vulnerable.”
Ross said he thinks it boils down fundamentally to fear, “fear of that unknown. And if we can get those answers, answers to that fear and start to mitigate the impact that this Safe Rest Village could potentially have on our community, I think we’ll accept it.”
According to a city document from early in February, the 6 Safe Rest Villages will eventually serve residents with an estimated 360 units, though the “actual number may be lower due to actual site capacity.”
Ross admitted he does not envy the task facing Ryan and the entire City of Portland.
Ryan knows there is plenty of work to do. “But one thing that isn’t an option for me is to do nothing and continue on the same slow pace that we’ve been on.”
Ryan said his office has to find a 7th location for a Safe Rest Village, because a pre-existing homeless village on SE Water Avenue is being moved to the downtown location proposed for Naito Parkway.
The commissioner said it will be 4-6 months before these Safe Rest Villages are open. But Hazelwood’s Kimura said she wouldn’t be surprised if most of the sites are not open before next winter.
Late February announcement
On Thursday, Feb. 24, Ryan’s office announced an emergency declaration by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler to approve four additional Safe Rest Village locations: one in Northwest Portland, one in North Portland, another by Portland International Airport and one in Southeast Portland.
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While it seems there are seven new sites, the one on Southwest Naito won’t add capacity because a pre-existing village is being moved there from the inner Eastside.