PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Following concerns in a southeast Portland neighborhood that a nearby church’s services to the homeless in the area may have impacted a growing encampment, the church is now speaking out.
Weekly dinners are just some of the services Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church has provided for the homeless or others in need for the past 30 years. Much of that time was also spent hosting Multnomah County’s needle exchange program for those in Montavilla.
“I believe that harm reduction saves lives and harm reduction says that every life is equally valuable,” said Sara Fischer, the rector — or head pastor — at Saints Peter and Paul Episcopal Church. “I think those kinds of services are vital and really important to us to be able to host them in the church parking lot because then the providers are safer and the people who receive services are safer than they would be on the street.”
Fischer says these services are needed more than ever as the housing crisis continues to hit Portland, leaving more out on the streets.
“They have a space where they can come and be treated like a human being and maybe relax for a few minutes and have someone relate to them,” said Fischer.
Until this week, a large encampment was set up just feet away, along both sides of SE Ash between 81st and 82nd. Last week, neighbors spoke with KOIN 6 after they heard an argument from the camp quickly escalate into multiple gunshots reaching their front lawn, the shooting captured on security camera. While sympathizing for those in the camps, they also worried the good deeds by the church may have also caused the camp to grow and get out of hand, as crime worked its way in.
“Now they know everyone is going to think they are a part of it, but I know that is not true and I know everyone is an individual,” neighbor David Rowe told KOIN 6 last week after his security camera captured the shooting from his lawn. “The leaders of the church, they’re doing good, but they go home at the end of the night. The residents that have to put up with shootings, have to stay here.”
Fischer says while she recognizes their concerns, she doesn’t believe the church’s services caused the encampment’s growth.
“We’ve been doing this for 30 years. We didn’t have camping on Ash Street 20 years ago when we started having the needle van in the parking lot. The camping was not because of the needle van. It’s because of this much, much larger complex, this humanitarian crisis,” said Fischer. “I mean, I live in a different neighborhood and there are a lot of people suffering in that neighborhood in the same way that there are around the whole city. It’s hard to have that kind of suffering in your own face.”
Even as the camp has since been removed by the city, Fischer hopes those who live and work in the Montavilla neighborhood can come together with the unhoused and create a community that’s safer for everyone involved.
“I can’t stress enough the need to treat everybody like a human being and to know that we’re all struggling for survival,” said Fischer. “When you know people’s names and their stories, they’re not scary and you feel safer and you understand.”
While it’s unclear if the camp’s removal this week was related to the shooting, Portland Police confirmed the incident and says they’re working with the city’s impact reduction team to remove any encampments they believe may be dangerous.