THE MERCY OF TIME—a side effect of Portland's drawn-out, bureaucratic code-enforcement process—is officially running out for a well-regarded homeless "rest area" that's been operating since early October at the highly visible corner of NW 4th and Burnside.
After citing Right 2 Dream Too in November for operating an illegal "recreational" campsite and having a too-tall fence, officials this month turned aside an appeal by the organizers and formally issued a $641 fine that's due February 1. Organizers tell the Mercury they won't challenge that fine (a move that would have cost more than $1,200) and instead are exploring two last-ditch options for keeping the tent city alive, at least through the end of its year-long lease.
The first is finding a way to transform the site into a legal campground—an option the city's Bureau of Development Services (BDS) repeated in a letter to Right 2 Dream Too this month. The second? It amounts to pressing city hall for some kind of reprieve.
"We're trying to work with BDS on the permitting process," says organizer Michael Moore. "That hasn't gone very far yet, but that's our plan."
Getting legal is a long shot. Obtaining building permits and making improvements could cost thousands of dollars that the group doesn't have. Moreover, organizers flatly reject the idea that the members-only site, where as many as 80 people might take refuge on any given night, is "recreational."
"This is not really a campground," says organizer Ibrahim Mubarak, a founder of Dignity Village. "It's a place for people to rest who would otherwise be sitting on street corners and in doorways."
Adds Moore: "People are pretty skeptical about that... but we're willing to try whatever they want."
Ross Caron, a spokesman for BDS, confirmed that organizers have phoned the bureau, but he also noted "fines will continue until violations are corrected."
That leaves city council. Moore and others have pointed to a pilot program, created in December, that allows small-scale car camping in church and nonprofit parking lots ["A Step Toward Legal Camping," Hall Monitor, Dec 15, 2011]. That program—an effort led by Housing Commissioner Nick Fish, but helped by Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who runs BDS—was made possible by a city resolution that directs inspectors not to enforce city codes that normally ban so-called "overnight sleeping." Advocates say the same thing could rescue Right 2 Dream Too.
"That's not something that would come from this office," says Matt Grumm, Saltzman's policy manager. "No one has pitched that to us either... Dan would definitely be open to listening to it, but I don't know where he'd land."
Moore mentioned Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who recently met with the rest area's organizers. Interestingly, Fritz was among the hundreds who joined Sisters of the Road's Martin Luther King Jr. Day march on Monday, January 16—cheering loudly during a stop outside the tent city and then again at city hall where organizers announced a February 1 rally and encouraged supporters to call Saltzman's office.
"City hall can create some kind of special exemption or ordinance," Moore says. "Commissioner Fritz is more inclined to see it that way, but she is going to talk to her colleagues."
Fritz, also seeking reelection, confirmed she'd met with organizers but declined to comment when reached by the Mercury.
The debate over Right 2 Dream Too comes amid an ongoing, Occupy Portland-sponsored 24-hour vigil at city hall that aims to upend the city's camping ban. Its organizers say they were recently called into a meeting with Mayor Sam Adams' office and spoke in defense of Right 2 Dream Too.
Organizers have made the most of their time. They've won over Old Town beat cops and skeptical neighbors, and they've also shown that their model—a low-cost, low-impact way of extending a hand to those on the streets—is workable.
Moore says as many as six people who'd stayed at the rest area since October have taken advantage of the camp's sanctuary to find more permanent housing.
"That's not something the shelter system is doing," he says. "It's given us a chance to show that this can work.""