Portland City Council had already listened for hours last week as foes of moving the homeless camp from beneath the Chinatown Gate to the Central Eastside laid out a litany of arguments. They think the new lot, near OMSI at the east end of Tilikum Crossing, is unsafe. That it will hamper a nearby business, East Side Plating. That it's an ugly and inhumane place to put people with few other options. And that the city's zoning code simply isn't built to allow a homeless encampment in a neighborhood carved out for industrial use.
And they were disappointed rather quickly today, as it became clear—after nearly a week of contemplation—that four out of five city commissioners support the move.
Commissioner Nick Fish was the council's lone dissenter on a pair of votes: one that accepted the very convenient zoning rationale city code enforcers crafted to justify a homeless camp on the Central Eastside, the other to affirm that the city will, in fact, move R2DToo to the plot at SE 3rd and Harrison in coming months. The well-regarded rest area has to be off of its current lot in October at the latest.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who's led the process of finding R2DToo a new site, had an interesting slip of the tongue early on in the hearing, when she said she'd been working on the issue since "February 1913." She actually meant February 19, 2013, but the point amounted to the same: It's been a long process finding the camp a new plot of land. Fritz thought she'd accomplished the task once before, in October 2013, but was undone when Pearl District developers scuttled a deal to land campers beneath the Broadway Bridge.
"I certainly hear the concerns of the 537 people who’ve emailed me so far saying the city needs to do more," Fritz said today. "It’s not a solution. It is a temporary place for people to sleep off the streets."
Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who controls the Portland Housing Bureau, had clear concerns about the move. He pushed for provisions in a use agreement the city will ink with R2DToo that make clear minors won't be allowed to sleep at the site, and that pregnant women staying there be required to seek prenatal care (R2DToo members say they frequently find midwives for pregnant women, since hospitals will take a newborn if its mother is homeless). But once his concerns had been aired, Saltzman was downright cheery about the arrangement.
"They’ve proved me and other people wrong," said Saltzman, who's butted heads with R2DToo in the past. "I think they will do a great job at 3rd and Harrison. I think it will only be a matter of time before R2DToo and East Side Plating are best buddies."
Commissioner Steve Novick, who delayed a vote on R2DToo last week because of questions he still won't discuss with reporters, said "a number of objections [to the move] make sense. I think you could find a number of objections to any site."
It was only Fish, a former housing commissioner who's repeatedly voiced concerns about a newly lenient stance Hales has taken toward homeless camping, who found the objections concerning enough to oppose the move.
Saying his head and heart were "in conflict" and calling R2DToo "a symbol of hope, of resilience, and of self determination," Fish repeated many of the worries neighboring business owners and neighbors rattled off last week.
The plan to create a 10-year agreement with R2DToo, he said, "does not include clear accountability measures, benchmarks for success, or even a budget."
"While the road from the Westside to the Eastside is certainly paved with good intentions there’s a saying that sometimes the longest distance between two points is a short cut," Fish said He then argued that the move "overrides" zoning and land use codes, a characterization Hales bristled at after the hearing.
"Commissioner Fish comments were erroneous," he said. "We didn't override our code. I believe that this is a legal use."
That question may well be explored in the months to come. The Central Eastside Industrial Council, a collection of businesses in the neighborhood, has repeatedly raised objections to the city's zoning rationale. It's entirely possible the group could appeal that rationale to the state's Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA). CEIC President Brad Malsin said after the hearing opponents would only file an appeal "if we think we can win."
"We still think it's not a great use," he said.
In the context of the city's the fast-shifting policies toward homelessness, today's decision actually isn't that wild. It merely moves an existing service across the river (though opponents believe it sets precedents that now allow homeless camps in industrial areas throughout the city). As we've reported, the vision for the new plot includes several larger structures that will housing laundry facilities, a kitchen, bathrooms, and showers. The rest of the property will be left for a collection of small and large tents that can host roughly 100 people at any time. The site's architect speaks of a "sculptural wall" wreathed in passionflower and raised garden beds.
As the move draws closer, city officials plan to hammer out a use agreement with R2DToo, and to help craft a "good-neighbor agreement" between the camp and other people in the area.