Tiny homes at Kenton Womens Village, one of several alternative shelters for homeless Portlanders.
Tiny homes at Kenton Women's Village, one of several alternative shelters for homeless Portlanders. Meg Nanna

Portland City Council is delaying a vote to expand where homeless shelters can be built in Portland, after receiving pushback from East Portland residents.

The proposed Shelter to Housing Continuum proposal (with the catchy acronym S2HC) is meant to replace what's become a yearly renewal of the city's Housing State of Emergency. The declaration, first made by former Mayor Charle Hales in October 2015, expedites the city's standard process for permitting new homeless shelters and waives zoning code rules that limit where they can be built. The Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has proposed codifying those temporary fixes to the still-present housing emergency with the S2HC.

The S2HC suggests City Council update city code language to allow for temporary shelters to exist in all city zones for up to 180 days and allows for public agencies or nonprofits to build permanent indoor and outdoor shelters on lots previously off-limits to these facilities without a special permit. It also expands the capacity of large indoor shelters, as well as the formal permitting process for those interested in building tiny home villages and other non-traditional shelters, and makes it legal for people to reside in RVs that are parked on residential properties.

In analyzing this proposed code change, city staff identified the vast number of properties across the city where shelters could potentially be built under the new policy. A heat map created by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability shows that, if the proposal is approved, there are at least 100 lots that could be turned into shelters in most Portland neighborhoods.

This is where some housed Portlanders have raised concerns.

This map shows that there are far more spaces to potentially build a homeless shelter in East Portland under this code change than in the central city. According to several city hall staff, city commissioner's email inboxes have been brimming with messages this week from East Portlanders who oppose the S2HC. The main concern is that they'll have to live near a higher number of homeless shelters than people on the city's west side.

East Portland neighborhood groups have also publicly expressed their opposition to the code change. Last Thursday, Hazelwood Neighborhood Association shared a statement on its Facebook page, in which it argued that all Portland neighborhoods should be equally responsible for living near homeless shelters.

"The brunt of solving this problem should not fall on the marginalized communities in East Portland," the post reads.

In a Lents Neighborhood Association meeting from February, several members said it was unfair to bring the "burden" of homeless shelters to underserved East Portland neighborhoods. One woman asked if there could be an amendment added to the S2HC proposal that would set "proximity limits" between shelter properties.

These concerns were also referenced in a January meeting of the Portland Sustainability Commission (PSC), the committee tasked with reviewing this policy before sending it to City Council.

After hearing a presentation about the S2HC plan, PSC commissioner Katie Larsel questioned what would keep East Portland, which she said "struggles with a reputation," from "becoming the place where all shelters are put."

Marc Jolin, director of the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS), was on the call to respond. JOHS oversees the creation of publicly-funded homeless shelters across the Portland metro region, and supports the S2HC code change. He explained to commissioners that for JOHS, shelter development isn't just driven by where land is available.

"The things that drive us to determine where to put shelter are... the people that are going to be served in those shelters," said Jolin.

Up until five years ago, Jolin said, all of Portland's adult shelter facilities were located in downtown Portland. As his department has observed an uptick in homeless encampments in the city's east side, they've built several new shelters to serve those growing communities. (Here's a map of all shelters overseen by JOHS).

"Taking shelter where the need is is one of our fundamental principles," Jolin added. "So that has meant, since there has been a significant amount of need in East Portland, that we've created shelter in East Portland."

(This map of unsanctioned homeless camps that have been reported to the city in recent months helps illustrate this need in East Portland.)

Staff with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability who attended the PSC meeting also reminded commissioners that the code change does not construct new shelters, it only removes regulatory barriers that would prohibit shelters from being built. There has been no indication from homeless service providers or developers that the S2HC change will spark a flurry of new shelter development in East Portland.

Larsel did not explain why building legal shelters in East Portland, which is home to several large homeless camps, would be problematic for East Portland neighborhoods. PSC commissioner Oriana Magnera pushed back at Larsel's worries later in the meeting.

"We're in an incredible crisis at this moment," said Magnera, "and if we don't have all the tools at our disposal, even if they make some people kind of uncomfortable, we are not doing the just duty that we should be doing as a body."

Commissioner Carmen Rubio currently oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. On Tuesday, her office announced the scheduled March 24 vote on the S2HC would be delayed until March 31, allowing for city commissioners to hold a work session on March 24. This will allow City Council to still vote on the decision before the housing state of emergency expires on April 4.

City Council will still hear public testimony at the council's already scheduled hearing on the S2HC plan on March 17 at 2 pm.

Will Howell, a spokesperson for Rubio's office, explained Rubio called for the work session to "create space for greater community discussion without imperiling the broader plan."

It's not yet clear if Rubio or other city commissioners will introduce amendments to the SH2C to limit the number of homeless shelter sites allowed per city region—but it's on the table.