Mercury Staff

THE SMALL CAMP seemed to emerge from nowhere.

One day, a Portland Development Commission (PDC)-owned lot sat empty at the corner of SE 93rd and Woodstock, as it had since the city snatched it up 16 years ago. The next, it was swarming with volunteers and advocates bent on claiming a safe space for the city's fast-growing population of homeless women—who are frequently subjected to sexual assault and other trauma.

And it was there without permission.

"We cannot, as an agency of conscience that sees this population almost daily, wait any more for the City of Portland to take action," a group called Advocacy5 wrote in a letter to neighbors three days before the takeover. "There are women being violated in the most heinous of ways, every day."

By sundown on May 8, six tents were set up on newly built platforms—five for homeless women, and one for a "live-in host"—and there were plans to build out the camp with a kitchen and a community space. Organizers at Advocacy5 would provide security guards, and eventually admit up to 25 women to the site.

"You have some of these women being raped twice a day," said co-founder Raine Ritalto, a homeless advocate with the group Free Hot Soup, as the setup neared completion Sunday. "The city's aware, but hasn't been working fast enough."

Ritalto's got plenty of people who'll vouch for that.

"When I came here, I felt safe and felt happy," a camper named Julie Zornado told the Mercury as she sat in front of a red-and-white tent, describing years of violence and fear on the streets. "I felt like a volcano, like I was going to be sick."

If the camp's arrival felt abrupt to neighbors—some of whom expressed dismay online—it didn't to city officials, homeless advocates, or people like Zornado.

Lisa Lake, president and CEO of Advocacy5 (which manages finances for several homeless outreach organizations working on the camp), says her group has been pushing the city for months to create an organized camp specifically for women.

The city even suggested the very Lents plot where the camp went up, then snatched it back recently—Lake says without explanation. With the path blocked, she says, the group decided to act anyway.

The city's reasons for taking the property off the table became clearer Monday, a day after the camp set up shop.

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After years of pushing redevelopment in the neighborhood, the PDC finally found a buyer for the plot at SE 93rd and Woodstock two months ago. In March, Clackamas-based Lisac Brothers Construction brought the agency a $500,000 proposal for the 0.38-acre site, according to PDC documents, and plans to build food carts and, eventually, market-rate apartments there.

The deal's a perfect illustration of the immensity of Portland's real-estate boom. Not only does PDC finally have a taker for a plot it's tried unsuccessfully to sell off, it appraised the property for $469,000 in April. That's more than double a $210,000 appraisal on the land less than three years ago.

"The struggles of getting some of these parcels redeveloped in Lents is certainly well documented," says PDC spokesperson Shawn Uhlman.

On Sunday afternoon, none of that history mattered to organizers who'd collected to build the camp, tentatively named Hope Forward. Those people included mayoral candidate Sarah Iannarone, who'd been working with Advocacy5 and had recruited volunteers to help build tent platforms.

"This model is going to be much more successful than the downtown shelter model," Iannarone told the Mercury. "It's the equivalent of circling the wagons."

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By the following day, though, plans had changed. After a bit of harried negotiating, Mayor Charlie Hales' office announced the organizers would be closing the camp, and steering its five early residents to shelters. But Hales' office also handed Advocacy5 and its partners a swift victory, committing to move the camp to another PDC site "in the next two weeks."

"These organizations have done us a service in connecting us with these women, so we can move them to safety," Hales said in a statement. "However, our Safe Sleep Guidelines are clear: They cannot set up unsanctioned camps."

Organizers kept their reactions low key, but privately cheered. They'd had no real sense, Sunday, of exactly how the city would react to their takeover. Now, suddenly, they had a promise.

"We knew we would get moved," said Trena Sutton, an East Portland advocate, who'd planned to act as the live-in host at the new encampment. "We just didn't expect it to be this soon."