PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — The Portland City Council soon could vote to ease zoning requirements to allow more homeless shelters, including sanctioned campsites, in most of Portland.

How many will open and where they will be located remains to be seen, however. The availability of a piece of property is not as important as whether they can be located close to services and transit, and whether money can be raised to open and operate a shelter or campsite on the property.

That is what the 11-member volunteer citizen Planning and Sustainability Commission was told on Jan. 26 before it approved the final recommendations of what is known as the Shelter to Housing Continuum Project. Although the commission was presented with maps showing that multiple potential locations exist in nearly every neighborhood, homeless experts, city staff and the director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services said many other factors go into determining whether a location is suitable or economically viable.

“Our goal is finding spaces that are available but also accessible to a range of services and transportation options,” Marc Jolin, director of the joint office, testified.

The commission eliminated one option from consideration — allowing permanent shelters in open spaces, including natural areas and public parks, except for the existing community centers in them.

After being assured by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability that more than enough other land exists throughout the city to meet all housing needs, commission member Chris Smith — an alternative transportation advocate who first raised what he called the “unpopular option” of using open spaces — withdrew his question.

But following that, the majority of the commission did vote to allow temporary shelters up to 180 days in a calendar year in open spaces. Only three commissioners voted to prohibit it, including Mike Houck, director emeritus of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, who argued the potential for the serious environmental damage was too great.

Left unanswered was the reason Smith asked his question in the first place, however: Whether the city can guarantee the new shelters and camps will be equitably distributed throughout Portland. The issue was highlighted by a series of maps Sustainability Bureau staff presented to the commission. They showed that neighborhoods in East Portland have the largest number of underdeveloped lots that could accommodate new shelters and camps without requiring conditional use permits.

“Is there a way to limit the number of shelters (in a part of town)? There shouldn’t be an unlimited number of shelters in East Portland because I can see them all going there,” said commission member Katie Larsell, executive director of Oregon Unitarian Universalist Voices for Justice.

Eric Engstrom, the Sustainability Bureau principle planner helping to staff the project, assured the committee that there is not enough money to fund an unlimited number of shelters and camps anywhere, and that the joint office and social service agencies realize there are needs in every part of town. But he and Jolin could not promise that new shelters and camps actually will be located in all parts of town, and the commission did not recommend such a requirement.

Nevertheless, Smith said he was pleased with the commission’s recommendations. Among other things, they allow new shelters of up to 30 people in low-density zones and up to 60 people in high density zones by right without requiring a conditional use permit. They also encourage more autonomous and self-governing shelters and camps for homeless people who are unwilling to live in those managed by social service providers.

The council could consider the recommendation as soon as this month.

A related Portland Tribune story can be found here.