WHEN WORD got out, back in May, that the Samaritans who run Sellwood's Moreland Presbyterian Church had signed up as the first would-be host of Portland's new "overnight sleeping" program—essentially offering the church's parking lot to a single woman living out of a car—the reaction from neighbors wasn't what anybody hoped.
Upset that Moreland failed, as they saw it, to ask their permission first, blind-sided residents bombarded the church, the Portland Housing Bureau, and Commissioner Nick Fish with harsh, hysteria-laced emails that dredged up some of the worst stereotypes about the homeless.
The outcry was loud enough that Moreland's imminent participation has now been put off, the Mercury has learned.
A community meeting in early June was supposed to mend fences, and it helped. But enough church leaders and key neighbors have been out of town in recent weeks, or will be, that a decision on how to change the program to make more people happy won't be made until later this summer.
The backlash over Moreland's plans could have been an awful blow for the overnight sleeping program. The project, while clearly not a panacea for homelessness, is a painlessly simple way to help at least a few dozen people teetering on the edge of something even worse than having to bed down each night in a car or RV. And as the rage simmered in Sellwood and then boiled over, city officials privately hoped it wouldn't discourage other churches from signing up.
That fear, at least in one case, appears to have been unfounded.
A second church, Westminster Presbyterian on NE Hancock, has looked at what happened at Moreland and has decided to try to join the program anyway, city officials confirm.
Church officials did not return several messages seeking comment, but sources say Westminster is working with Portland Homeless Family Solutions to help screen and provide for whoever sleeps there. Westminster also appears to have learned a lesson from Moreland's travails.
Before word emerged more widely about its plans, Westminster made sure to go door-to-door to talk to neighbors, addressed the Irvington Community Association's most recent meeting, and held another forum at the church itself. The camping program also comes with strict rules that any interested church or nonprofit must abide. Among them, no more than four vehicles are allowed on any lot; "guests" must keep quiet; and "hosts" must offer access to a portable toilet.
"Westminster is not yet hosting, but is making progress toward meeting city requirements for doing so," says Mark Larabee, spokesman for the Portland Housing Bureau. "They may begin hosting as early as mid-July."
Under that timeline, Westminster would actually leapfrog Moreland. Let's hope they do. Because a success story will make it so much easier for other churches to get off the fence and get involved.