- Photographs by Denis C. Theriault
- Mark, an advocate with Right 2 Dream Too, says the rest area on NW 4th and Burnside, open since October 2011, "may have saved my life."
The lawsuit, filed by attorney Mark Kramer, is a big deal in that it will force some overt dialogue on a conflict the city, led by Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office has preferred to let quietly burn. The suit says Saltzman's Bureau of Development Services is unfairly treating Right 2 Dream Too like a "recreational campground" and asks the city treat it just like Dignity Village, a transitional housing site up in far-out Northeast Portland that isn't subject to the same standards as a "recreational" site. State law allows two such sites in each city.
The suit also asks BDS to waive the thousands of dollars in fines it's levied against the property owners starting a few months after BDS declared the rest area—a successful, safe and self-policing site where as many as 80 people sleep daily—a code violation.
Kramer hinted at this approach in a letter sent to city hall over the summer. He sat down with Saltzman and Housing Commissioner Nick Fish and their staffers twice since then. The city admitted it knew of no safety or health concerns at R2DToo but wouldn't budge on waiving fines that now clock in at $1,200 a month. It also told advocates they'd support a different site in Old Town—but that advocates would have to find it themselves.
"Right 2 Dream Too is not a Boy Scouts camp, it's not a Girl Scouts camp, it's not a recreational camp," Kramer told the crowd. "It's a temporary shelter for homeless people because the city cannot meet the needs of the homeless in our society."
Saltzman, who's handled the conflict in low-key fashion while trying to separate Right 2 Dream Too (which his office likes) from its landlords, like Wright (a former adult bookstore baron embroiled in several legal fights with the city) has increasingly earned the ire of advocates. The Rev. Kate Lore of downtown's First Unitarian Church of Portland started a "shame on you" chant aimed at Saltzman. Others chanted, at times, "Pennies, nickels, quarters, dimes, Dan Saltzman squash those fines."
Saltzman was out of the office during the protest and wasn't available for comment.
After the news conference, advocates tried to swarm into Portland City Hall to personally deliver copies of the complaint and speak to commissioners. That set up a clash with guards that almost turned violent—thanks to a decision to phone in the riot cops.
Guards were worried enough that several police cruisers and motorcycles rode in to block off the street outside city hall and start putting on tactical jackets and riot helmets. But just as that was happening, some of the protesters who'd made it up to the commissioner's offices came back down and reported handing a copy of the legal complaint directly to Mayor Sam Adams—reportedly the only city commissioner actually on site.
"We've won," the man said—giving the crowd license to evaporate, and the cops license to take off their gear and put back in the trunks of their cruiser a few minutes later.
The city's distaste for Wright and his role in the R2DToo experiment is driving much of the fuzziness on its response. Wright has a history of poking the city and especially Commissioner Randy Leonard—who went after Wright when R2DToo's now-cleared lot had been home to Cindy's Adult Books and then an ill-fated pod of food carts.
BDS staffers and Saltzman's office have felt like Wright hasn't been willing to sit down with them, while Wright, meanwhile, has at times felt the same way. R2DToo opened in October 2011 and signed another one-year lease this fall.
"The most recreation they get is to eat something and get out of the weather," Wright said at the press conference. "I'm angry and I'm disappointed."
Kramer invoked "fiscal cliff" negotiations between the president and US House speaker as an example fo a time when people who don't like one another still have to sit down. Answering a question about Wright's past conduct, Kramer told me, "This is a separate issue" that doesn't matter because "he's a landlord."
The site has drawn controversy almost since the day it opened. Developer David Gold, who owns the city—redevelopment-backed Grove Hostel building across NW 4th on Burnside nearly immediately railed on Saltzman to pull the plug, the Mercury has reported. Coincidentally, Gold late last week started circulating complaint forms and a denunciatory letter to neighbors—claiming investors wanted to bolt his project, costing the city money, because of R2DToo. Gold's letter was first reported by Street Roots but the Mercury has since obtained a copy.
R2DToo organizer Ibrahim Mubarak said today that more than 30 people have gone one to find housing in directly from the site and that a few dozen more have been able to find work. Groups from Ashland and Eugene have come up Interstate 5 to study the site's model and adapt it to where they live.
"That lets us know it works," Mubarak says.
One resident, Mark, said he and his wife had been staying there for the past three and a half months and that, bluntly, it "may have saved my life."
"Being able to lay down and sleep on a daily basis is the biggest step I have taken toward feeling more normal since arriving at Right 2 Dream Too," he said. "And all this with absolutely no help from the city of Portland.