PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — City funding for Hazelnut Grove Village is back on the chopping block after Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler walked back an apparent six-month reprieve trumpeted by a fellow elected leader.

The after-office-hours confusion saw Wheeler and Commissioner Dan Ryan trading contradictory statements — turning their public relationship into a static-filled game of telephone.

The drama played out after the Tribune exclusively revealed in an online article that Wheeler planned to stop paying the $1,500 monthly that provides fencing, portable toilets and trash collection to the North Portland homeless community in March.

Citing extensive talks with Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Ryan promised a “critical breakthrough” the next day, Feb. 18, that would keep the community-funded until late August.

“I believe we need to create as many options as possible to provide stability for our houseless neighbors in this time of unprecedented crisis,” Ryan said.

Wheeler denied the dunk moments later, saying through a spokesman that the funding extension was “not a firm timeline.”

Ryan’s policy director, Mark Bond, scratched his head: “All I know is that six months is what the Mayor told Commissioner Ryan in a meeting this afternoon.”

Wheeler subsequently dispatched aide Sam Adams to meet with Grove residents on Feb. 19, the Tribune has learned.

A failure to communicate

Rather than charging in with bulldozers — and risking a full-throated eviction defense — Wheeler’s strategy could leave the long-running but never officially permitted tiny house community to wither on the vine.

Or maybe not. Employees under Wheeler’s sway had previously suggested their own novel solution: Let Hardesty pay for it.

“(Portland Bureau of Transportation) actually owns that property,” said city spokeswoman Heather Hafer. “If PBOT and Commissioner Hardesty want to continue that funding, that’s going to be up to them, but we’re basically going to transfer that over.”

The proposal to pick up the tab caught PBOT staff off guard.

“Continue what funding? How much?” asked one surprised PBOT spokesman.

Hardesty is indeed at the helm of the city’s Transportation Bureau under the city’s commission form of government and has shown support for the village on social media. The bureau is already preparing to tighten its belt due to plummeting gas tax and parking meter revenue, its only sources of discretionary funding. By law, gas tax money must be spent on road projects.

As confusion reigns at City Hall, Ryan, the commissioner-in-charge for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Service, has suffered from an apparent communication breakdown with others on the dais.

He quietly met with Grove residents in early February — leaving many with the impression the camp’s closure has been delayed — but didn’t mention any end to funding.

“Implicit in saying that the plan for demolishing is suspended is saying that the services are continuing,” said activist and Hazelnut supporter Peggy Zebroski, who joined the video conference call with Ryan. She said the village would build its own fencing and composting toilets if need be.

“I’m highly suspicious and concerned, and we will continue to make maximal efforts on every front we can,” Zebroski said, “down to asking the community to do a peaceful defense if it comes to that.”

St. Johns Village delayed again

Staff for the mayor’s bureaus say the funding will cease only after the opening of St. Johns Village, a nonprofit-operated housing pod community officials say has room for everyone living at Hazelnut Grove — though that was before talk bubbled up of a six-month reprieve.

The doors in St. Johns are supposed to swing open in the first week of March or the beginning of the second week, according to the Joint Office of Homeless Services. But whether that date will stick is unclear, as several previously slated openings were delayed by the half-foot of snow and problems relating to construction of the project’s modular common building that will be connected to utilities.

“Mayor Wheeler believes we must move with urgency to create more and better safe shelter options for people experiencing homelessness,” said mayoral spokesman Jim Middaugh. “This requires creativity, a willingness to try new things and the flexibility to learn and improve as we go.”

The Homeless and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program, controlled by the mayor, says crews will deconstruct individual tiny homes only after they have been vacated — with intentions to repurpose them at some other location eventually.

St. Johns Village was designed expressly to end the thorny question of Hazelnut Grove; whether folks will choose to leave voluntarily is another matter.

The Joint Office says Hazelnut Grove residents will fill eight of the 19 beds at St. Johns Village, while HUCIRP told the Tribune that 11 of the 15 people living at the Grove had agreed to move.

In response, Hazelnut resident Barbra Weber says, “that is absolutely not true.”

“There are five people moving to the village,” Weber said. “And no one’s moved yet.”

Officials say St. Johns Village offers a low-barrier solution for those at Hazelnut Grove. Weber notes that the uniform, single-occupancy pods are a far cry from their meticulously handcrafted tiny homes, some of which have separate kitchens and porches, and are shared by married couples.

“I know people who desperately need services and want help, but I haven’t needed that,” Weber said. “I’m just not in support of forced services or background checks, or non-self-governing villages, just because that’s not a right fit for me.”

Grove’s tangled saga

It’s been a month since City Hall officially announced plans on Jan. 18 to “decommission” the community, which sprang up on a wooded slope of city-own land in 2015.

The mayor’s office began searching for an alternative site for the village in 2018, ultimately partnering with nonprofit service provider Do Good Multnomah and St. Johns Church, which loaned land for a new community in 2019.

While nearly 6,000 people have signed an online petition hoping to “save the village,” officials have long cited the fire and landslide risk as reasons to uproot the village located between North Greeley and Interstate avenues.

The city purchased the land in 1956, a few years after constructing a 96-inch diameter sewer pipe 20 feet beneath the slope above the village, Bureau of Environmental Services Property Manager Eli Callison wrote in a city document.

“Staff likely (purchased the land) to protect the sewer infrastructure and adjacent roadway against landslides or other hillside failures that could occur if the property was developed,” according to the memo dated Dec. 18. “With the steepness of this hillside (1:15), any changes to the current use of this property would require a geotech report and review.”

Other swaths of the area were long-owned by the Oregon Department of Transportation before being transferred to PBOT in 2015.

Portland Fire & Rescue has provided fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and conducted safety inspections at Hazelnut Grove since 2017, and clears brush to create a 20-foot buffer around the village with cooperation from village leaders.

Even so, Fire Marshal A.J. Jackson noted the topography and seasonal dry winds create “the potential for significant fire hazards” on site in a separate memo on Jan. 6.

“While the current location of Hazelnut Grove is far from ideal, the community has been very responsive to the safety recommendations provided by our fire inspectors,” Jackson wrote. “Should the village be relocated, our primary concern is that the area becomes occupied by a community that is far less amenable to our input.”

Ryan promised reprieve

Whether the clock is about to run out on Hazelnut Grove — or headed into extra innings — clearly depends on who provides the information.

Though he has now twice promised a reprieve, staff for Ryan has suggested the buck ultimately stops… somewhere else.

Said policy director Bond: “Many in the community assume Commissioner Ryan has decision-making authority as it relates to Hazelnut Grove, which he does not.”

Still, those at the Grove wonder whether Ryan knew of the looming funding cut when he met with residents on Feb. 11 via Zoom.

“There was no definite plan to save the village, just that they weren’t going to have our services cut off,” Weber said of the meeting. “(Ryan) is going to have a hard time wiggling free from the promises he made, but I’m still a little concerned.”

Commissioner Hardesty signaled her support for the cause on Feb. 9, writing on social media: “In my heart I know that however complicated the situation is, I am morally unsettled with forcibly moving people from their community at Hazelnut Grove.”

Though in the eyes of the law, it may be an unsanctioned settlement, Hazelnut Grove has already outlasted one mayoral administration, and retains strong support from activists citywide.

“The village has done no harm. It is an essential sanctuary for houseless people, and there is no reason to decommission it at all, and most certainly not in the depths of winter and during a COVID epidemic,” said Zebroski, who lives in the neighborhood. “It’s really important that the public hear that.”

A related Portland Tribune story can be found here.