Doug Brown

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A new 200-bed homeless shelter would not represent a "significant expansion of services" in Old Town, Mayor Ted Wheeler's office now says.

Citing the recent departure of a self-run homeless camp and transitional living facility from the neighborhood, the mayor is arguing that adding a large shelter wouldn't run afoul of long-held city planning policy to not meaningfully expand social services in Old Town. The so-called "no net gain" policy has been a central argument of Old Town businesspeople, who say their neighborhood is already full up with nearly 330 beds among four year-round shelters.

"The mayor believes that the new shelter under discussion does not represent a significant expansion of services," Wheeler spokesperson Michael Cox told the Mercury this week.

That argument comes as the battle over the shelter is poised to heat up.

Earlier today, the Old Town Chinatown Community Association (OTCTCA) sent officials a three-page letter describing the neighborhood as overrun with predatory drug dealing, sex trafficking, and gang activity, and called on officials to find a space elsewhere. The letter was addressed to Wheeler, County Chair Deborah Kafoury, and Marc Jolin, director of the county's Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS).

"Our neighborhood knows first-hand the unintended consequences of services and shelters being over concentrated in a single area," says the document, first noted by the Portland Tribune. "The issue is not with those receiving services or seeking shelter, but rather with those who prey on vulnerable populations."

The association's conclusion? That it "cannot support" the proposal to develop a shelter in an unused warehouse at NW 3rd and Glisan. To make its case, the group offers up reasons cited by every neighborhood facing the possibility of a new shelter: safety (the OTCTCA says Old Town has the worst crime rate in Portland) and economic impact (it mentions businesses that have recently moved out).

But as the Mercury reported recently, Old Town stakeholders have a more unique argument, too: decades of commitments by city officials to not meaningfully expand social services in Old Town. Current city planning policies say officials should "not locate additional major social services in the district.”

That verbiage was included in a plan approved by Portland City Council in 2015, and it's repeated in another plan—dubbed Central City 2035—that the council is currently considering. Even so, Wheeler says the language doesn't apply to the proposal for the new shelter, which could become the city's largest.

How does the mayor figure? Cox cites the recent closure of the Royal Palm, a building a NW Third and Flanders that he says served as transitional housing for 32 people experiencing mental health issues, and had dorm space for 20 more. He also notes the recent relocation of the self-run homeless camp Right 2 Dream Too, which Wheeler's office helped move to the Rose Quarter. The camp hosted around 70 people on a typical night (Cox maintains it maxed out at 100 people, and that its relocation was a big priority for Old Town businesses).

It's not an argument likely to satisfy the OTCTCA. After all, a 200-bed shelter would represent a 60 percent increase in the neighborhood's current institutional shelter beds. Even lumping in the beds lost via the departures of the Royal Palm and R2DToo, it's a net gain.

As the mayor argues a new shelter comports with the city's committments, Cox says Wheeler is also considering changing the language about expanding social services that's currently on the books.

"We will continue to look at the language in the 2035 Central City Plan," he says. "We want the language to accurately reflect City policy, and any changes we can make to help get us there are worth considering."

While this debate might be headed toward open conflict, remember that Portland is struggling with a growing homelessness crisis, and that officials have a hard time finding shelter space that meets zoning criteria and is near social services offerings. Boosters for the new Old Town shelter say it would do both—and also argue that it will help improve the neighborhood.

"This conversation started because more than 300 people are sleeping without shelter in Old Town Chinatown every night," reads a freshly released statement from Wheeler, Kafoury, and the JOHS. "A well-run, strongly supported, high-quality shelter like the one we've proposed would help, not hurt, the neighborhood. This kind of shelter can provide a warm, dry place, and a stable connection to services, for many of those neighbors without shelter. It would help them from doorways and sidewalks and into housing."

Bottom line, the statement says: "We will continue to explore this opportunity."

Here's the full letter from the OTCTCA [PDF].