FIVE MONTHS after Portland City Council sanctioned an "overnight sleeping" program that lets small numbers of Portlanders living in cars or campers find nighttime refuge in the parking lots of sympathetic churches and nonprofits, the city has found its first so-called "host," the Mercury has learned.
Moreland Presbyterian Church is looking to open its small lot at SE 18th and Bybee to a lone vehicle occupied by a single woman, either with or without a family, city and church officials confirm.
But while officials and advocates had hoped for a quiet launch at Moreland, that plan has gone awry. According to emails and other documents first obtained by the Mercury through a public records request, a handful of neighbors who feel blindsided are actively trying to pressure the church into overhauling, or even canceling, the project.
"This has already divided this very cohesive several block area," Phyllis Boyer wrote to the Portland Housing Bureau. "I'm very angry about that, as I have lived here since 1988. I wonder if this is what the city had in mind when it passed this resolution so quickly."
With other churches considering stepping up as "hosts," Moreland's become something of a guinea pig. The resulting outcry threatens to overshadow the good, if limited, step the program represents—while also highlighting precisely why it's needed. People who don't often come downtown or follow homelessness issues don't always realize one of the more peculiar elements of life on the streets: Sometimes people who don't have a house don't look like they don't have a house.
Some of the most unsettling complaints, at first blush, seem to reflect that point. One neighbor wrote in detail about the threat of rape, car prowling, mental illness, drug abuse, and other ills stereotypically associated with homeless camps.
"My neighbors already feel obligated to bring their children indoors when transients frequent our neighborhood on Tuesdays, which is recycling day," Brandt Boisseranc wrote to Commissioner Nick Fish this month. "And now they have more reason to be concerned about their children's safety. This does not even mention the possibility that their children will be exposed to sights and sounds that they have no business seeing at their age—in their own front yard."
But that also misses the realities of what Moreland is proposing. While the city program allows churches and nonprofits to host up to four vehicles, Moreland will host only one—a far cry from a "homeless camp." Guests at Moreland will be clients of respected housing-services provider JOIN. Equally important: The church is providing a portable toilet, in compliance with city rules that also say campers must be quiet, out of parking lots during business hours, and refrain from idling their car engines.
To soothe concerns and address the telephone game being played around the neighborhood, Moreland is planning a meeting at 7 pm on Monday, June 4.
Pastor Tom McKnight said he was troubled when he saw a flier being passed around with the words "homeless camp" on it. He's hoping the meeting will "clear the air" and share the real story about what the church is proposing to do.
"We're talking about one car that would be occupied by a single woman or a woman and children, and whoever would be here would have worked with JOIN," McKnight says, taking pains not to be judgmental about the program's more vocal critics. "We've tried—publicly—to say this. It's fair to say there's more opposition than we would have anticipated."
Boisseranc, in an interview with the Mercury, acknowledged he was angry when he wrote to Fish. But he still feels like the church has done a lousy job communicating and thinks the city or the church might someday loosen standards—without first telling neighbors. He also says he worries that a single woman would be vulnerable in the church's parking lot, as opposed to inside the church.
"There isn't a single person in my neighborhood who doesn't feel strongly about helping the homeless," says Boisseranc, a nurse who volunteers at the Free Clinic. "If I took a tone, it was because I was insulted by the approach—not because I don't care about the homeless.... The only reason we're having the June 4 meeting is because we're forcing them. They're starting to give us information. But it may be too late."
Marc Jolin of JOIN says the main idea is that any arrangement would be temporary and not entrenched.
"We don't envision that people would be living in their vehicles for extended periods of time," he says. "The idea here is we have folks who are sleeping in their vehicles, but they're not in safe locations. This gives them a place to be safe overnight and focuses their attention and energies on the work of getting into a permanent place to live."