PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Leah Armstrong, Andy Pollack, Marta Guembes and Meka Webb are homeowners in North Portland. But they say the shelter that is supposed to help the homeless problem in their neighborhood has now made their life intolerable.
“I’ve seen drug deals go down. Orgies,” Armstrong said. “Fights. Fires.”
Guembes said she’s seen “people using drugs, people having sex, people fighting. … It is becoming a horrible scene.”
“You see people camping and hanging out on the streets,” Pollack told KOIN 6 News.
Webb said, “We ended up calling the police.”
There’s been a lot of attention given to why it has taken the City of Portland and Multnomah County so long to open shelters and Safe Rest Villages. One of the big pushbacks from neighbors is the fear they will invite people to camp nearby where there are no rules.
That’s exactly what happened at a new shelter that opened in the Arbor Lodge neighborhood of North Portland, seven blocks west of I-5. It’s also another example of why the homeless crisis is so difficult to solve.
There is a building that used to be a Rite Aid pharmacy that Multnomah County bought for $2.8 million. In November 2021, County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Mayor Ted Wheeler, Commissioner Dan Ryan, House Speaker Tina Kotek and others were there to announce its opening as an emergency warming shelter. They also said another $2 million will go toward remodeling the building next fall.
“I can be in a meeting, look out my window and I see folks utilizing drugs with the glass pipe,” Webb said.
“Most of us recognize that people who are on the streets need help, they need help with mental health problems with addiction, counseling, other issues,” said Pollack. “The concern though, is that the shelter has become a magnet for crime and other problems.”
Under the County-City Joint Office of Homeless Services, it now houses 70 people who were on the streets. But neighbors like Marta Guembes have paid a price.
“After the shelter happened our neighborhood has changed completely,” she told KOIN 6 News. “We are afraid for our children to be out at night.”
The Arbor Lodge shelter attracted satellite campers, those who pitched tents along the walls and sidewalk outside the building.
Guembes’ home surveillance video showed one example of what she experiences — a stranger talking to someone while smoking and sitting on her front porch.
There are campers on the other side of the shelter at a vacant building that used to be the Farmer’s Barn Tavern.
Webb said they started camping there in February 2022. She first called the police when she spotted a man from her window on the roof of the red building removing metal.
“Since then,” she said, “it has gotten a lot worse.”
She has photos of people going in and out of the building, people squatting in the building, a half-naked woman outside. The city has had 2 recent building department nuisance and housing investigations.
“I feel helpless and I little bit like I’m spinning my wheels, sending the same report in week after week, day after day,” Webb told KOIN 6 News.
On the City of Portland’s campsite reporting page, the number of complaints plainly grows since February, peaking in March.
On the opposite side of the shelter from the Farmer’s Barn Tavern there is another boarded up building that used to be the Portland Police Association union headquarters. That was the site of dozens of protests, fires, tear gas and gun shots.
Asked how much one neighborhood can tolerate, Webb said, “I think we’re reaching our limits.”
‘I don’t have a solution’
Daniel Hovanas, the deputy director of Do Good Multnomah, said he understands the concerns of the neighborhood.
“I mean, that’s just the housing crisis and unfortunately it just, it’s right there on their doorstep and it’s uncomfortable and I get it and I think like everyone else, you don’t want that,” Hovanas said. “However, there’s just not enough resources to house everyone. You know, I mentioned that we have 300 individuals just on the waiting list at Arbor Lodge. You know that’s an insane amount of folks just waiting to get in. And so where can they go?”
Do Good Multnomah is the organization running the shelter at Arbor Lodge.
“The problem is so huge that I don’t have a solution,” Hovanas said.
There are 58 people living inside on cots and 12 in tiny homes in the parking lot. Case managers steer people to social services and mental health and drug treatment, but the people camping outside are on their own. Two people who talked off-camera with KOIN 6 News admitted there’s drug use around the shelter.
But when asked about the concerns the residents in the neighborhood have, they said, “Where are people supposed to go?”
The side effects of satellite camping have been central in the concerns of other neighborhoods where the Safe Rest Villages are proposed.
“I can’t believe concentrating more homeless people in one spot isn’t going to attract more of the same into the neighborhood,” said Multnomah Village resident Pat Brunett.
Portland Housing Commissioner Dan Ryan agreed to a 150-foot buffer where no unregulated camping is allowed. But there is no buffer around shelters like the one in Arbor Lodge.
Ginger Edwards, the secretary for the Arbor Lodge Neighborhood Association, said the shelter is the kind of thing that needs to happen across the city to tackle the homeless crisis.
“I am welcoming of the shelter, and we as a board are welcoming of the shelter,” Edwards said.
At first, the neighborhood embraced the shelter, even helped to serve holiday dinner. They’re currently working with shelter residents on neighborhood cleanups twice a month.
But at the same time, the association is pushing for help.
“We really want the mayor to establish the emergency declaration that there’d be a buffer zone between shelters and camping and Safe Rest Villages and camping, believing that first of all, the neighbors around have a right to maintain the privacy of their homes,” Edwards said. “And if there’s campers, that’s just impossible.”
Edwards believes a buffer zone of a quarter-mile is appropriate, as some neighbors have asked for around the proposed Safe Rest Village in Multnomah Village.
Hovanas acknowledged there is no buffer zone at Arbor Lodge. The pre-pandemic goal was for people to live in the shelter for 90 days. But it’s now 120 days — and there are 300 people on the waiting list.
“I think it just points to we just need more resources because no matter how big the buffer is it’s going to be in someone’s front yard. And so at the end of the day, housing is a human right. Everyone deserves to have housing,” he said. “I think that’s on us to figure out how we do that.”
The City of Portland cleared out the people camping against the building and put up a fence but not outside the Farmer’s Barn Tavern.
Neighbors wonder how long before more campers come back and how long they’ll have to deal with so many consequences.
“In some ways,” Meka Webb said, “I think it has drained the resolve to make this situation better from a lot of folks, which actually is kind of scary.”