A CROWD GATHERED in the dark at city hall on the night of Saturday, November 19, braving the cold to hold a candlelight vigil marking one week since Mayor Sam Adams and the Portland Police Bureau evicted Occupy Portland's five-week-old encampment.
But a few blocks away, a second five-week-old tent city remained: The residents of Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2) say they expect to continue occupying a vacant lot on NW 4th and Burnside for a full year. An unlikely friend is aiding their mission: city bureaucracy.
While Occupy took over public parks for their protest, the homeless residents of R2D2 are staying on private property, with the owner's consent. Occupy movements across the country have had to scrabble with police and politicians for each extra day at their sites. But R2D2's site has been notably peaceful and conflict free.
About 80 people sleep among the lot's hodgepodge of tents, which organizers diligently refer to as a "rest area" to try and skirt the city's anti-camping rules, and members give up their spot if they leave for more than 12 hours.
The homeless group inked a yearlong lease with lot owner Michael Wright on October 6 and it took just a little over a month for the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS) to cite the lot for two code violations: one for camping and another because its unique fence, built from donated wooden doors, is over the maximum six-foot limit. After the citations were delivered on November 8, Wright has another month to bring the site into compliance or face a $583 fine a month for three months, when the city would then hold a hearing and potentially levy a daily fine.
Occupy Portland media volunteer Jordan LeDoux says the Occupy protesters considered occupying private property, but opted to stay in public parks because their free-speech rights were not guaranteed on private land. In the end, the city control of the parks contributed to the protest's ouster.
"This country has greater protection for property rights than it does for speech rights. And that's probably not the way it should be," says LeDoux.
"It raises a larger question—if you have permission from a private property owner, what does that mean for any kind of camping?" says Israel Bayer, executive director of homeless newspaper Street Roots. "The city is following the bureaucratic process and doing their due diligence."
The camp has surprised its critics among Old Town businesses by remaining clean and self-policed. Organizer Ibrahim Mubarak says the site has a strict code of conduct—including no violence, threats, and (unlike Occupy Portland) no drugs or alcohol—and has asked about five people to leave for violating the rules.
"It's a real melting pot, but we all have experience doing these things," says Mubarak.
Among the tent city's main organizers are people who worked on homeless encampments Dignity Village (which worked with the city to find a legal home in Northeast Portland) and Phoenix Rising (a camp on an unused city right-of-way land that Portland officials dismantled last year ["The Coldest Shoulder," News, Sept 16, 2010]).
Longtime downtown business owner Howard Weiner, founder of skateboard shop Cal Skate, says he was initially unhappy about R2D2, but has been impressed with its self-policing.
"Having something managed is better than people sleeping in doorways," says Weiner. "I support their goals, but not their location."
Housing Commissioner Nick Fish is in conversation with several faith groups to discuss allowing churches to host homeless camps on their property, though Mubarak says R2D2 isn't interested in moving to a church. The R2D2 group plans to discuss whether they'll raise fee money or try to turn the lot into a legal campground.
Matt Grumm, a BDS liaison in Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office, says the lot could legally convert into a campsite, with proper water and sanitation facilities installed, though the permit for conversion costs $500 to $1,000.
At the heart of the issue is a lack of affordable housing and homeless shelters in Portland. The city has 669 shelter beds open year-round, plus 300 more in winter. But on any given night, about 1,700 Portlanders seek shelter or sleep on the streets. That leaves a lack of shelter for over 700 people every night, some of whom now find refuge on NW 4th and Burnside.