ANNOUNCED WITH FANFARE more than a year ago—but met soon after with skepticism and vitriol—a pilot project meant to pair churches and nonprofits with homeless Portlanders sleeping in their vehicles has struggled to catch on and seems to have slipped off the city's priority list, the Mercury has learned.
Officials say just one church—Northeast Portland's Westminster Presbyterian—has opened up its parking lot and followed through with an offer to serve as a host in the city's "overnight sleeping" program.
And only one other church even formally applied, Moreland Presbyterian in Sellwood. But neighborhood outrage last May—at times ugly and histrionic—forced Moreland to pull back ["Not in My Parking Lot," News, May 24, 2012]. After hearing from neighbors who felt blindsided by the idea—and stoked community fear over the specter of rape and filth—the church decided to offer indoor housing instead. Pastors at either church didn't return messages seeking comment by deadline.
The program, approved in December 2011 and supposed to last just a year, is still in effect. It keeps alive a murky legal arrangement in which city code enforcers, who normally crack down on car camping, turn a blind eye if it's done on approved lots and according to city rules.
Westminster joined up last summer. Since then, however, not a single new church or nonprofit has come forward. A Portland Housing Bureau report on the program, written in December, suggests would-be hosts may have been put off by Moreland's fraught experience and the lack of legal clarity.
"I had hoped it would create more temporary sleeping options, at this point, for people trying to get into permanent housing," says Marc Jolin, executive director of JOIN, a nonprofit that links homeless Portlanders with services and one of the groups assisting with the project.
"Some churches have opted to continue working more informally with folks on the streets, as long as there aren't concerns being raised by neighbors," he continues. "Some churches saw the experience Moreland had and decided they could do more good with other forms of ministry. All of us continue to be open to churches who want to try out this project."
But it's also become less than clear who's running the project. Though the housing bureau is responsible for tracking and vetting would-be hosts, spokeswoman Jaymee Cuti told the Mercury in an email that the bureau "isn't administering the overnight sleeping program."
She pointed to the faith group Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, which has been helping reach out to churches, and said its director, David Leslie, is "coordinating this program."
Leslie says his group is still promoting the program and interested in working with churches. But he gently indicated, when asked about overall numbers for the program, that he didn't consider his group in charge.
"The registration, once a congregation expresses desire—that has to be done with the housing bureau," he says. "We periodically would check in. But they're the ones who have a sense of the number of queries that came through and how many actually hosted under the program."
The limbo comes at a time of renewed focus for the housing bureau. Last Wednesday, April 10, Portland City Council blessed what the bureau is calling a "reset" of Portland and Multnomah County's so-called "10-Year Plan to End Homelessness."
The details for the new plan have yet to be determined. But the framework is ambitious: It calls for better and more focused sharing of government money; more collaboration between nonprofits, churches, businesses, and people on the streets; more focus on groups like families and veterans; and the realization that people of color are fundamentally overrepresented on the streets.
"Our focus in ending homelessness is detailed in the reset documents," Cuti emailed, "prioritizing long-term and cost-effective strategies like rapid re-housing and short-term rent assistance to transition people who are homeless into stability."
But Leslie and Jolin agreed that the overnight sleeping program could remain a viable tool for the city, even under the "reset." The project's other goal, besides providing safer sleep for car campers, was to raise awareness about homelessness and have that awareness seep more deeply into the minds of Portland's churchgoers.
The idea, Jolin says, is that even if churches don't ultimately participate in the project, they would still "become enmeshed in the issue and become engaged with nonprofits trying to do this work."
Portland, if it's committed to the program, may want to look to Eugene for answers. Eugene has not only made car and backyard camping legal, but it also spends money on its overnight sleeping program and makes clear that one agency, the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Lane County, is in charge.
Keith Heath, manager of the program for the past seven years, says Eugene has 36 spots, some hosting as many as four vehicles. He also says the waiting list of clients is dozens deep and that businesses, not just churches, call up and ask to host.
"It's a lot of red tape and understanding what your rules or regulations are in the city," he says. "You have to change ordinances to make it fit."
Leslie, of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, says he's "very familiar" with Eugene's experience and said it was, in part, a model for Portland's. But getting answers will take a village.
"We're very interested in figuring out why it didn't take off quite the way we might have envisioned," he says. "But that's a question I can't answer. We need to get some people around the table."