The city-funded homeless village for LGBTQ+ residents, formerly located on SE Water Ave, is moving today to one of the city's first "Safe Rest Village" locations on SW Naito. The move of some 25 tenants comes on the heels of the village's somewhat rocky introduction to the neighborhood, spurred by what appears to be a communication breakdown between city offices and neighborhood groups.
Because of these dynamics, villagers remain hesitant to feel welcome in their new home.
The original village, dubbed the Queer Affinity (or "QA") Village, was set up as an emergency shelter for unhoused Portlanders at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the pandemic soldiered on, the village transitioned into a permanent option for unhoused Portlanders seeking a path out of homelessness. The program was initially overseen by the Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) and independently-run, but as the months turned into years, JOHS required the program to be operated by a contractor. Nonprofit All Good NW took over the QA Village in September 2021, a move that some longtime residents were upset by. Now, villagers are bracing for another change: A move across the Willamette River to a more permanent location at 2300 SW Naito, just north of where Naito intersects with Interstate 405.
The move is in collaboration with City Commissioner Dan Ryan's Safe Rest Village program, a project to create villages made up of tiny pod shelters across the city for unhoused people to legally reside before ideally moving into permanent housing. While Ryan has plans to open six new villages, his office is also responsible for folding in three emergency villages created during the pandemic, including the QA Village, to the program. Although today's move marks the opening of the first village under the Safe Rest Village program, the QA Village's general setup will be largely unchanged from its previous iteration.
Andrew Brown, systems operations director for All Good NW, said his team is "over the moon" about the relocation, mostly because they inherited the previous location with more than a year of differed maintenance issues. Brown says the new location is less of a "fishbowl," meaning residents will have more privacy from nosy—and, at times, disrespectful—passers-by.
Not everyone was as thrilled to hear about this move, particularly those located near the planned village lot. Not long after the location was announced in September, administrators of the two private schools located adjacent to the new village—the International School of Portland and Bridges Middle School—penned a list of demands to Ryan's office regarding the village, including bans on camping 1,000 feet outside the village's perimeter and mandatory criminal background checks for all tenants.
Since the QA Village has positioned itself as a "low barrier shelter," it doesn't run intensive criminal background checks on its residents. It does screen potential residents for safety concerns, and has a process for asking disruptive or threatening tenants to leave. This didn't meet the requirements of the school leaders. On May 6, the administrators held a press conference near the SW Naito lot to revoke their support of the program.
Bridges Principal Beven Byrnes and International School director Bodo Heiliger said they were concerned about the potential drug use, garbage, and crime the village could attract. Byrnes said she was especially alarmed that the residents would not be screened for sex crimes.
This concern was underscored at a virtual town hall Tuesday, which was hosted by Byrnes and Heiliger. Parents of students who attend their schools shared fears of villagers "exposing" themselves or abducting their children. One parent said it was "so sick" that her child's classroom looked directly into the village property.
This response came as an affront to villagers looking forward to the move.
"The way these people are reacting to us is atrocious," a villager named Samus Aran told the Mercury. "It's not right that they want to pry into the personal lives of people who are trying to gain stability. Things like this only prevent people from getting off the streets."
For many at the QA Village, the statements from Byrnes, Heiliger, and the school's parents felt more than just the usual criminal stereotyping of unhoused people.
"Some of us feel that the pushback is not only anti-homeless, but anti-LGBT," said a resident who goes by the name Daisy. "It's more of the same 'keep those perverts far away from my kids' rhetoric that is always throw around to slander queer people."
Commissioner Ryan echoed the villagers' concerns in his response to the May 6 press conference.
"I reject the notion that Villages will 'attract predatory drug dealers,'" said Ryan in a statement following the conference. "I am deeply concerned that the [stakeholder group] chose to stoke fear regarding sexual orientation by targeting the Queer Affinity Village, and I stand by my conviction that Villages will make communities safer."
Byrnes told the Mercury it was "heartbreaking" to hear Ryan characterize her group as "homophobic NIMBYs." Heiliger clarified that his group was interested in background checks long before they knew the space would be housing LGBTQ+ people. Byrnes said that both results from a poll taken Tuesday and their own anecdotal data show that the vast majority of neighbors to the future QA Village site support the city running background checks on residents.
"For us, this is a no brainer," said Byrnes. "With Safe Rest Villages so close to schools it seems that the responsibility would be held by the city to protect the children inside."
Asked if either she or Heiliger had spoken with the villagers, Byrnes said they had been advised not to interact with the QA Village residents. They could not recall whether it was the city or All Good NW that advised them. Neither Ryan's office nor All Good NW's Brown said that they directed the schools' leaders to not speak with villagers.
"We did say it was a confidential, private site," said Brown, "but we view our participants as autonomous adults who are free to do as they please... talk to who they please."
It's something QA Village residents believe would have kept neighbors from assuming the worst about them.
"Instead of making assumptions maybe these people should have gotten to know us first," said a resident who goes by Elizabeth. "How would they like it if we accused them of being predators?"
"The best thing we can do is just avoid these hateful people and not engage with them," said another resident, who asked to remain anonymous.
Byrnes and Heiliger deny having any animosity toward the incoming villagers themselves. In fact, they said their schools had planned on welcoming their new neighbors with gift baskets and murals, and had planned of growing a relationship between their students and the villagers. The welcoming plan was called off once they heard the city wasn't running background checks on the newcomers, however. They accuse the city of not meeting with them frequently enough or reflecting their concerns in the final village plan.
"This is about how the city has handled this process," Heiliger told the Mercury Wednesday. "This has not been collaborative and they have not engaged us in dialog. We are put in a position to look bad when we’ve been working hard to do right."
By Thursday evening, however, both the city and the school administrators had changed their tone. In a call with the Mercury Thursday afternoon, Heiliger said he is now "cautiously optimistic." That'a because Ryan's office agreed to "work toward solutions" on the school group's main requests in a Thursday meeting.
According to Ryan's Chief of Staff Kellie Torres, the commissioner's office agreed to three things: create a "Community Safety Plan" in collaboration with neighbors, law enforcement, government organizations, and All Good NW, "clearly define the intake and low-barrier screening process" for incoming village residents, and create advisory boards in all neighborhoods where [Safe Rest] Villages are located.
"We are committed to transparency and engagement in this process, and we will continue to share our progress addressing houselessness in Portland with our community," wrote Torres in a press statement released Thursday.
It's not immediately clear if this agreement has changed how villagers feel about the move.
The 25 residents of the QA Village will be moving into brand new shelters today constructed by a Washington company called Pallet. The original Pallet structures villagers called home at SE Water location will be deconstructed, cleaned, and stored to be used as emergency homeless shelters by the city in the future.
Today's move marks the first new opening of a village under Ryan's Safe Rest Village program. The locations for six other villages have been selected, but they won't be opening for several more months.