It's mid-January and grain is falling at Right 2 Dream Too again.
Tiny flecks drifting to the pavement look so much like snow that I briefly believe a winter storm has set in.
Since last June, the seven-year-old R2DToo has been trying something new. In a city-brokered deal, the self-managed homeless camp moved from its longtime home in the shadow of the Chinatown gate to a Rose Quarter parking lot in the shadow of a grain elevator.
The airborne flecks—off-dusting from grain hoppers operating on adjacent railroad tracks—are minuscule reminders of how different R2DToo’s situation is these days. But they’re far from the only ones.
When founded in 2011, the camp quickly grew accustomed to the drunken late-night revelry of Old Town Chinatown. Its current home in the Rose Quarter is quieter. And R2DToo has traded its painted wooden doors and shoestring approach for something that looks more like Portland’s three other homeless villages: several large tents and 13 small structures, including 10 sleeping pods.
Most crucially, the camp that proved its worth while situated at the epicenter of the city’s homelessness crisis is now almost a mile away from Old Town. That has reduced demand, but seven months into an experiment over how well its model can work in a more-remote location, members and leaders say R2DToo is as vital as ever.
“Our goal is still the same, it hasn’t changed,” says Sarah Chandler, chair of the nonprofit’s board. “Yeah, it’s a little farther away from services, but we’re really close to transit. It’s a lot quieter, it’s cleaner, it’s paved, and it’s not gravel, which is amazing for handicapped people.”
In Old Town, R2DToo’s available beds filled up quickly, forcing the camp to turn away as many as 100 people per night. These days, Chandler and R2DToo member Gordon Bergquist say, it still fills to capacity in winter, but turns fewer people back out into the cold—just eight the night of January 11. Its current capacity of 90 includes 38 single men, 14 single women, 14 couples, and about 10 members who stay at the camp full-time.
The lower demand gives credence to some worries that even ardent supporters of the camp’s model have voiced about the move.
“How are social services agencies going to reach them?” R2DToo cofounder Ibrahim Mubarak recently asked. “How accessible is it for people with shopping carts? For people who are looking for a place when shelters are full? For people who are new in this town?”
Chandler, Bergquist and others say the central mission remains—that R2DToo is still a grassroots, self-governed, “low-barrier” model providing safe sleep for all.
“It’s a new opportunity for us,” Chandler says. “We have no intention of shutting down until we are no longer needed.”
Vaughn and Elisabeth Snoddy are two people who’ve come to rely on the village in its new location. They’re what R2DToo refers to as “probies,” meaning they’re on probation—transitioning from casual “overnighter” status to full-on members responsible for the village’s operation.
Married since August 7, the couple are interracial and Muslim (Elisabeth notes her hijab has spurred uncomfortable reactions at R2DToo). They have been homeless off and on since tying the knot, and have stayed at R2DToo for a month.
Six weeks ago, Elisabeth says, she gave birth to identical twins, Aanna and Arielle. The parents are now working to get their daughters out of foster care, even as Elisabeth says she’s battling bone cancer. She and Vaughn say they were “kicked out” of a Transition Projects, Inc. shelter and “disqualified” from a housing program at the Urban League due to Vaughn being incarcerated for a week.
At R2DToo, they’ve found shelter, food and company.
“We’re trying to get a place, struggling with everything right now,” says Vaughn.
The couple’s struggles highlight the rest area’s commitment to providing refuge for those who fall through all the gaps in the safety net—the ones “banned or barred” from other shelters, as Tom, another member, puts it.
“We accommodate everyone, because nobody deserves to be homeless,” Chandler says.
A walkie-talkie crackles at R2DToo’s front desk: “Thunderbird, all clear.”
R2DToo members patrol the outskirts of their new location near the Moda Center almost as if they work security for the Trail Blazers. This dedication to order—part of an approach that forbids weapons, sex, and drug or alcohol use onsite—helped win the camp accolades in Old Town, and it might be helping here as well.
As the city debates whether its rising homeless population has contributed to less-safe streets, city data suggests there were fewer reported crimes in the Lloyd District from June through November 2017—after R2DToo had moved in—than in the same period over the prior two years. At the same time, reported crimes in Old Town Chinatown have risen since the camp moved out, and as compared to the same period during the prior two years in that neighborhood.
Chandler isn’t surprised by the numbers, though her explanation centers on the role of police.
“Half the problem is that being homeless is a crime,” she says. “Having somewhere for people to be that’s safe takes away their ability to criminalize you for that.”
Asked about the data, Portland Police spokesman Sgt. Chris Burley notes that police work to reduce crime and the fear of crime “through partnership with community members, leaders, service providers and other parts of the criminal justice system.”
“I am not able to speak to the positive or negative impacts of R2DToo without looking at a statistical review of data regarding the locations,” Burley wrote in an email.
Even so, R2DToo has proven popular in its new spot. In October, the camp inked a “good neighbor agreement” with the Lloyd District Community Association and Rip City Management (the operator of the Rose Quarter), and both groups voiced support for it.
Chandler says the Lloyd District has been “incredible” to work with since the move.
Still, some things never change.
Just as developers in Old Town had sued to clear out the camp from the neighborhood, condo owners have taken issue with R2DToo’s current location. The McCormick Pier Condominium Association, located directly across the river from the new site, filed a petition with the state’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) last year, hoping to invalidate the “space use agreement” between the city and the village.
It was the second time the condo association had sought to remove houseless people from its sightlines. In 2016 the condo’s owners blocked access to its river sidewalk due to concerns about trash, defecation, needles, and “destroying our landscape.”
“They don’t want to walk up on their patios and see us,” Bergquist said, with a shrug.
But R2DToo’s staying put—for now. The LUBA appeal was dropped in September.