IT WAS REFRESHING candor from a city muckety-muck. The scene was a summit late last month between Old Town and Chinatown neighbors, city code enforcers, and the organizers of an insurgent homeless "rest area" at NW 4th and Burnside. And Portland's newly minted housing director, Traci Manning, was talking to me after it had wrapped up.
"Homelessness sucks," the longtime Central City Concern operations chief said, repeating a word she used during the summit. "You can quote me on that."
But right after, when asked about a proposal that would actually allow small- to mid-size campsites on church or nonprofit property—like a law recently approved in Seattle—Manning adopted the measured words of a city bureau director.
"We should look at all ideas," she said.
Ideas, maybe, like the tent refuge in Chinatown—close to social services, unlike Dignity Village. And if not there, then maybe somewhere else like it. Momentum might finally be building.
The summit on Wednesday, October 26, came 16 days after the first tents sprouted on the refuge's gravel lot, just beneath the Chinatown gate—and 15 days after code enforcers came to visit with the bad news that the camp doesn't comply with city zoning and design codes. And now, nearly a month in, the "rest area," dubbed Right 2 Dream Too, is still growing, says its president, Mike Dee.
About 80 people sleep there on any given night. Some of the earliest residents, he told me, have already moved on to more permanent housing, taking advantage of the chance to get a good night's rest and put their affairs in order without having to worry about being rousted or having their stuff stolen.
Even among skeptics, the rhetoric that flared when the site opened has cooled. The camp, which some supporters prefer to call a "private club," has been peaceful. Police, appearing at the summit, could report no significant uptick in crimes.
But while Howard Weiner, president of the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association and the host of the summit, said he still wasn't happy about where and how the camp started—without the usual genuflection to neighbors and property owners that developers must endure—he also promised he would help Right 2 Dream Too find a more agreeable location. Or locations.
There may be time to work something out. The appeals process for any code violations could take months—keeping police at bay.
"It's an issue that needs to be addressed by our city and county leaders," says Weiner, who has invited Dee's group back in December. "The time is now, and the need is now. We didn't need to take this on. We could've let the process go."
Weiner, however, noted a conspicuous absence at last month's meeting: Housing Commissioner Nick Fish.
"I miss Erik Sten," Weiner said. "Erik would have been at this table. Leading."