City opens up overnight camping option for select sites

By Joanne Zuhl, Staff Writer

For years, Portland’s anti-camping ordinance has been the target of countless demonstrations by the homeless and their supporters.

They have marched, protested and held vigils at City Hall against the city’s policy that makes camping illegal on public property or on unpermitted private land, which they say effectively criminalizes the thousands of people in this city without homes.

On Wednesday, however, the city gave a little ground with a new approach — a policy allowing faith-based and nonprofit organizations to host vehicular campers on their lots.

Presented by Commissioner Nick Fish, the resolution approved Dec. 21, establishes a one-year pilot project that will let people without shelter to “sleep overnight in a vehicle, camper or trailer parked on an existing parking lot of a host.” The resolution limits hosts to one designated area per partner, with a maximum of four vehicles at a time. It does not, however, allow for tent campers.

On Thursday, Multnomah County Commissioners passed a supporting proclamation echoing the new sleeping allowances. The new policy is patterned after one in Eugene that for years has allowed designated camping sites for people experiencing homelessness.

Several people who testified before City Council argued passionately that the resolution doesn’t go far enough, and leaves the population of tent campers without a place to go. Many of those testifying spoke on behalf of Right 2 Dream Too, the camp at Fourth Avenue and Burnside, which is under threat of closure for code violations.

Fish acknowledged the plan isn’t a solution to the city’s housing crisis but it is a step in the right direction, calling it “a commonsense and pragmatic response to the crisis we find ourselves in.”

“Last week, there were more than 90 people in families staying at our family winter shelter,” Fish said. “That’s a 150 percent increase over last year. Many of these families are currently sleeping in cars, which have to move on a regular basis. This pilot would allow them to safely and legally sleep overnight, with the authorization of a faith-based partner or nonprofit.”

Fish said the plan comes after two years of reviewing the city’s camping ordinance, but it gained momentum from the Occupy Portland movement, which raised the profile of the number of people homeless on Portland’s streets. The issue has also been put on a trajectory by Right 2 Dream Too.

In November, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon sent letters to Fish and County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury’s office asking for the opportunity to explore hosting small-scale camps for the homeless.

David Leslie, executive director of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, said faith-based organizations are hoping the option will spur greater innovation in addressing and correcting homelessness.

“The big issue we’re looking at is how can religious communities utilize their resources and their assets more creatively, effectively and collaboratively, to help people end homelessness, build affordable housing and maybe get to the point where there’s actually economic development,” Leslie said “That’s the big issue.”

Several members of Ecumenical Ministries participate in the program in Eugene. There, Leslie says, the program has provided a safe place where people can sleep, but equally important is the personal impact the relationship has in breaking down the isolation.

“I think that’s what we really need,” Leslie said, again reflecting on the Occupy movement. “Good communities are those where everybody is treated with respect and dignity no matter what your station in life or where you are in the artificial caste system we use. It’s really possible that that could be the real transformative moment.”

The city and county’s winter shelter services opened in November, and within the first week, the number of people arriving for shelter far exceeded last year’s figures. As of Dec. 5, the county’s warming center — which was projected to serve 40 to 60 individuals — held 90 people. Peak capacity for the center is 102. Likewise, all of the county’s family shelters were at capacity. In all, the county reports the family winter service system census is 150 percent more than the highest census for any time in past years.

The unexpected and dramatic increase in people needing shelter and living assistance prompted the Multnomah County Commissioners on Thursday to pump nearly $800,000 in assistance to housing and homeless services.

Staff in the family shelter system also reported signficiant differences in families seeking shelter this year. There were more younger families, including teen parents, and larger families with two heads of household and multiple children. The homeless youth system is also reporting unprecedented numbers of youths seeking shelter, with individuals being turned away on a regular basis because of capacity limits.

“I was hearing really heartbreaking stories from everybody – from folks who run our family shelters, from the folks at the emergency shelters, from the folks who are answering the phones at 211. It was very consistent,” Commissioner Kafoury says. “All our community partners were telling me how really incredibly bad it is out there. It just seemed like we had to do something big and we had to do something broad.  It wasn’t just one particular area – it was every part of our system.”

The request comes in advance of the peak shelter demand month of January, when county representatives and service providers expect even higher numbers of people seeking shelter. According to the one-night homeless count, the number of unsheltered homeless families with children in Multnomah County increased by 35 percent in 2011 over 2009.

“We continuing to get new people, people who we haven’t seen before, people who are new to the system,” Kafoury said. “If they are younger, they were able to live with family or relatives for a while. But they haven’t been able to get back on their feet.”

The bulk of the $787,000 infusion from the county’s General Fund — $450,000 — is earmarked for eviction prevention. The rest will support higher than expected demands on warming shelters for families, as well as housing placement and rent assistance.

In addressing the City Council Wednesday, JOIN Executive Director Marc Jolin spoke in support of the resolution, saying his organization has seen an unprecedented number of car campers in the past year.

“They live in the constant fear of being told to move on, ticketed or towed,” Jolin said. Jolin recounted the story of a man who had left his trailer in a parking lot to go downtown and access services, only to return to find his trailer had been towed. He had no money to pay to get the vehicle back, and consequently, because of lien laws, lost all of his possessions inside. For people like this, Joline said, this policy will be invaluable. “It will help them live more safely while they are still on the streets and work more effectively with us to get off the street,” Jolin said. “It complements rather than takes away from our focus of helping people end their homelessness.”

In Eugene, just one of many cities in the country that have allowed overnight car camping, the number of sites for campers has fluctuated between about 30 and 50 sites. One of those sites is the First Christian Church, where Dan Bryant, the senior minister, said people donated trailers to make them available to the homeless.

“I think it’s very much of an opportunity for church members to become aware of what are the issues that people face,” Bryan said. “And that’s a big eye opener to see someone in that situation to become self supporting.”

The new camping policy will be reviewed in a year. Among Fish’s goals is to have at least a dozen faith and nonprofit partners serving as host sites, with minimal complaints from neighboring businesses and residents, “and ultimately, I’d like to see the families that are served moved through the pipeline and get into permanent housing.” Fish said he expects there will be skeptics of the plan, but doesn’t accept the suggestion that this program will draw more people without homes to the city. That hasn’t been the case in Eugene, and there’s no evidence that it has happened in Portland, he said.

“Of all the arguments that are used to delegitimize our work, the one that I find most offensive is the ‘magnet’ or ‘welcome mat’ argument. It is used by some of our critics on the right as basically an excuse to do nothing. There is no evidence that by investing in affordable housing we have put out the welcome mat for low-income people around the country. The overwhelming majority of people we serve in Portland have ties to the region. And frankly, I would proceed with these programs even if it did cause us to have a reputation as a humane and progressive city. This is a national problem and Portland is going to do its part.”

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