The City of Portland doesn't want any question: It's Hazelnut Grove's landlord.
So right now, Mayor Charlie Hales' office is in talks with the Oregon Department of Transportation to acquire state-owned land surrounding the organized tent camp that's sprung up near the intersection of N Greeley and Interstate. Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Don Hamilton confirms to the Mercury the city will take control of two pieces of ODOT land to the north and south of the encampment—land where non-sanctioned camping has produced problems in recent weeks
"We have started a process with the city," Hamilton says, noting the state will give the land away.
I've crudely outlined the parcels in red here. The city's existing property is in yellow.
The acquisition will be a game-changer for Hazelnut Grove— but not the sort you might think. Hales' chief of staff, Josh Alpert, says the new city property won't be used for an expansion of the organized camp. Rather, it will give the city more leverage for clearing problematic campers out.
"It won't be full of people," Alpert says.
Here's the plan: When it gets the new land, the city will create an official permit for Hazelnut Grove, likely setting boundaries and capping its occupancy at around 40 people.
Then, Portland officials will give warning to many of the campers just south of the formal encampment—a group that's been calling itself Forgotten Realms. City officials, neighbors, and Hazelnut Grove advocates complain that chaos and crime have sprung up as more people moved onto that parcel.
"Forgotten Realms is having a lot of trouble," Alpert says. "They're not abiding by any regulations, but we'll now have trespass authority."
The still-pending land deal marks the second time the city's tapped unused state land with an eye toward helping homeless people recently. Earlier this year, the city bought a parcel at SE 3rd and Harrison—near the east end of the Tilikum Crossing bridge—as a potential future site of the homeless rest area Right 2 Dream Too. Details of that move are still being worked out.
Vahid Brown, a central advocate for Hazelnut Grove, says the camp's core members approve of the arrangement—hammered out in a Monday meeting between camp representatives, social workers, and city officials ("lots of lawyers," Alpert says).
"Everyone here can see that this is a lot of work," Brown says. "It's difficult to maintain social cohesion. The more people, the harder it is."
Brown says there have been increased instances of theft and assault as more campers—many of them not formally agreeing to Hazelnut Grove's code of conduct—have flocked to the land.
A formal permit with the city is a big mark of legitimacy for the camp, which started out earlier this year as a few campers who'd been swept from other parts of town. And it's a sign Hales is making good on his indication he'll explore new options for the homeless while the city works through a housing crisis.
Even with the more-formalized arrangement, though, the camp's time is limited. Alpert says the mayor's office will time Hazelnut Grove's permit to end when the city's housing "state of emergency" is scheduled to expire next year, and that the city will work to find another parcel for the campers.
"We're creating a system here," he says.