MICHAEL WRIGHT was at a bar—a loud one—and trying to figure out if the scotch he'd ordered was any good. "Okay. You got me," he said into the phone after I announced who I was.
Wright co-owns the high-profile Chinatown lot that's home to Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2)—the innovative and successful homeless "rest area" that sprang up just beneath the Chinatown Gate last October. And Wright—with the city piling on thousands of dollars in fines, after declaring the place an illegal campground—quietly holds the keys to the group's fate.
He doesn't talk much, so it's worth listening when he does.
Right now, according to its lease with Wright and co-owner Dan Cossette, R2D2 is responsible for paying the fines. Not Wright or Cossette—even though they're the ones receiving the notices from the city.
R2D2 has managed to keep up by raising cash from sympathetic Portlanders and diverting money that otherwise would help pay the group's food and utility bills. The fine money has been placed in an escrow account while they try to persuade the city to waive the penalties. But as the fines increase, that's been more and more difficult for the group to manage.
"They're a little bit behind," Wright says, "But they're trying to find more money."
And what will Wright do if they can't keep up—or if the city takes steps to seize his land?
"We'll have to pay the fines," he says. "It's a nice piece of property, and I'm not going to give it away. And they'd have to go back to living under the bridges, in doorways, and getting kicked by police."
That possibility—that Wright, and not Portland cops, would clear the site—has loomed quietly over the entire arrangement. It's not something anyone likes to talk about.
"He told us he doesn't want to lose the land or pay" out of his own pocket, says Ibrahim Mubarak, a spokesman for R2D2.
We ought not forget what's really happening here. Wright and Cossette are still stinging after the city made them tear down the adult bookstore, Cindy's, that once graced the lot at NW 4th and Burnside. And they didn't get into this latest arrangement to save the world. They did it to poke the city.
"When we first started, I don't think he was houseless friendly," says Mubarak. That's started to change. Mubarak says Wright has had his eyes opened about the good he's doing. But his interests still come first.
And the city—especially Dan Saltzman's office, which oversees code enforcement—has seized on this dynamic. (Having Wright cave and boot the campers makes their lives much easier.) They laud R2D2's organizers but claim their hands are tied because Wright won't return calls or letters. Wright replies that they're stonewalling him.
But Wright clearly still savors the fight and wants it to continue. He recently put up a sign, over the objections of R2D2 organizers, accusing Saltzman of "effectively taking the food out of the mouths of the homeless."
The wording was chosen carefully, Wright says. "If you say it directly," he notes, "they may not like that."