THE SUN BROKE through, briefly, on Monday, October 10, as members of a would-be homeless camp officially took possession of one of downtown Portland's most visible pieces of property: a vacant lot right on the corner of NW 4th and Burnside, just beneath the Chinatown gate.
One of the lot's owners, businessman Michael Wright, handed members of the nonprofit group Right 2 Dream Too their copy of a one-year lease to settle on the gravel lot. And the group—which had been in talks with Wright for months—took a big and festive step toward a longstanding goal for Portland's homeless community: Setting up a second Dignity Village-style tent camp in the city, but one that's much closer to Old Town's vital nerve center of social services.
There was even talk of solidarity with Occupy Portland and its well-organized tent village over in Chapman Square—a campsite that, for a change, has actually managed to win the city's blessing. So far.
But the sunny moment ended almost as soon as it began. More clouds floated in. And so did a pair of city inspectors bearing grim news. The project, they said, is probably illegal and will have to go. Tent camping on private property, says Mike Liefeld, code enforcement director, isn't technically allowed.
Because in Portland, apparently, not all occupations are created equal. If you choose to sleep outside because you want to make a statement, city officials will go out of their way to waive all sorts of rules, like curfews and camping bans, to keep you out of trouble. But if you have no choice but to sleep outside, and you still want to make a statement? Better start boning up on the ins and outs of Portland's tangled zoning laws.
Said one member who declined to give her name because she's not authorized to speak for the group: "It's going to be a huge double standard if they crush this."
Not that the run-in with city inspectors has slowed work on the site. By Tuesday morning, a dozen or so tents dotted the lot, and workers were fashioning wooden bases to keep occupants off the gravel and muck.
Passersby offered support. Even a housing bureau official, Sally Erickson, walked over, although "not in her official capacity"—and then brusquely tried to shoo me away while she chatted with Right 2 Dream Too's president, Mike Dee.
The reality that the site sits on prime real estate surely won't help matters. Nor will the fact that its owners—who used to run an adult bookstore on the site, and then food carts—are probably using the camp to escalate what's been a battle with the city council, but especially Randy Leonard. But the city has long been wary when the homeless community tries to take its fight for shelter into its own hands.
"It sounds like we're being targeted," said Dee. "We feel like we're up to code and we're doing things legally."