It's been a sticky mess for several reasons. Absent political direction from BDS' previous commissioner-in-charge, Dan Saltzman, the city has decided to treat Right 2 Dream Too like an illegal "recreational" campsite—and, thus, fine it thousands of dollars. Then, after months of failed talks, the group sued the city last winter.
Lurking beneath all the back and forth is the city's distaste for the site's main landlord, Michael Wright, who ran an adult bookstore on the lot before knocking it down amid a code push by then-City Commissioner Randy Leonard (whom Wright has also sued). And, for good measure, the Portland Business Alliance hates the idea that the camp exists in so visible a place; Chinatown neighbors, who like the site, aren't in love with its location beneath the Chinatown gate; and the developer who owns the building across the street, David Gold (relying on city money), has complained the rest area is making it too hard to sell retail space on NW 4th.
So you can understand why, even though the city and the cops actually like the site, this has been such a problem. But Fritz's jurisdiction could prove interesting. She was an early advocate for the site, trying and failing last year to broker a compromise with her colleagues that would end the code fines.
"The next thing she heard was no one else was open to much discussion," says Michael Moore of affiliate group Right 2 Survive. "And that's where it got dropped."
But now that BDS is Fritz's to run, she's got a freer hand. And her staff says it's going to look anew at helping.
"We'd always been talking with other colleagues on council about other possibilities," says Fritz's chief of staff, Tom Bizeau. "We've always been trying to figure out a solution. And we still are. Now that we've got it in our portfolio, we'll dig down and see if there's any way to resolve what's really been an impasse."
R2DToo's backers are clearly intrigued by the potential breath of fresh air.
Says Moore: "I would have hoped that Saltzman would have seen that as his role, addressing the bigger issues."
But it's clear nothing will probably happen until the group's lawsuit against the city is resolved. That could happen as soon as next month—and it's actually likely the city will prevail. A hearing is set for July 11.
According to Mark Kramer, R2DToo's attorney, the city has asked Multnomah County Circuit Judge Karin Immergut to toss the lawsuit on procedural grounds [pdf]. The city argues Right 2 Dream Too should have "exhausted" all available appeals before filing its suit. After the first fines were assessed, R2DToo chose not to raise $1,215 for a what it saw as an unlikely appeal in front of a city hearings officer.
"They didn't have the money," Kramer says. "The city says, 'Too bad. Now you can't go to the court to seek relief.' Even though, if this were in the courthouse, you could seek a fee deferral or waiver."
Kramer is hoping to convince Immergut that R2DToo was too broke. And also that, because of Fritz's efforts, it had decided to wait for a political solution instead of something bureaucratic.
If the lawsuit is booted, it could be a silver lining. Kramer says he contacted Mayor Charlie Hales' office earlier this year and that he exchanged emails with staffers Matthew Robinson and Baruti Artharee, Hales' public safety director and, until Tuesday, housing bureau liaison.
"They were warm. They wanted to sit down," he says.
Until, that is, "they spoke with the city attorney. And next they were cold and harsh. 'We're not going to do anything for you.'"
Right 2 Dream Too is currently in its second annual lease on Wright's property. The group first rented the lot, for a buck, in October 2011. The current lease expires this year. Among its terms: Even though Wright and his business partners are technically on the hook for the city's fines, Right 2 Dream Too is in charge of paying them.
Dozens of people a night stay at the site—enjoying a safe place to sleep and, in some cases, using that as a springboard for getting their affairs in order and seeking out jobs and schooling and permanent housing.
Last I reported on the fines, they were up to $17,000. The group is putting money in escrow, money that it says could be spent on other needs, including site improvements. Even without all the money, organizers and volunteers have been busy. Another code issue, the site's eight-foot fence of donated doors on Burnside, has been fixed so it now complies with the city's six-foot rule. And the places has slowly evolved and improved its overall appearance.
Moore and Kramer both say they'd welcome discussions about finding some other place to run the site, provided it's near social services and transit, unlike Dignity Village. The city has been tepidly interested, they say, but hardly proactive.
"I don't think anyone believes we'll be there forever," Moore says. "The whole point is to demonstrate that we can do this. There are super-low-cost ways to deal with the crisis while it's still happening, and it still is. There are alternatives to people being criminalized for sleeping in parks and doorways.
That's always been the point."