Portland’s newest houseless village popped up this morning on city-owned land in a far-flung, woodsy corner of Northeast Portland’s Wilkes Neighborhood.
At 10 am, a group of a dozen volunteers, led by veteran homeless activists Lisa Lake and Steve Kimes, began setting up wooden platforms and communal spaces at in groves of cottonwoods along the Columbia River Slough near Northeast Airport Way and Mason.
The new community—dubbed the “Village of Hope”—is similar to self-managed homeless villages like Right 2 Dream Too and Hazelnut Grove, which sprang up against the wishes of city officials. But this is the first protest encampment to emerge under Mayor Ted Wheeler, and appears to be the first located so far from downtown (it sits near NE Marine Drive between 170th and 181st).
Village of Hope also may be the first major protest homeless encampment located on land owned by Portland Parks and Recreation. Its ten tents now sit on a property called the Big Four Corners Natural Area, which contains the slough’s meandering waters, deer, coyotes, river otter, and 175 bird species.
“Let’s prove how stabilization, for not a lot of money, can work wonders,” Lake said at a January 16 planning meeting for the camp.
The creation of the new homeless village comes as city and county officials dump millions of dollars into creating new homeless shelters around town, and into creating deeply affordable housing. In a statement, organizers noted that city and county officials “are making progress, but many people continue to fall between the cracks. Their shelter development processes have engendered intense neighborhood conflicts and come with huge price tags.”
It’s unclear how the city will respond to the clandestine encampment. Mayor Wheeler’s deputy chief of staff, Michael Cox, told the Mercury he needed to look into the situation before commenting.
Village of Hope consists of ten tents on raised wooden platforms, plus three communal areas (a kitchen area, a “community center” and a “Chill Zone”), a dumpster, and a portapotty. Organizers have said three on-site managers will sleep there tonight. The numbers will grow to ten within the week, and could ultimately reach 30.
For the village’s houseless managers—Robert Aquino, Kerry Wheeler, and John Boggs (known as “Thumper”), —the key to the Village of Hope is relative stability and security.
“This camp is like everything to me right now,” Kerry Wheeler said. “I just need a place to be, and I can’t be alone — it’s scary out here.”
The Big Four Corners Natural Area is surrounded by warehouses and industry, but honeycombed with paths, wetlands and meandering forks of the slough. Aquino, Thumper, and Wheeler may know its paths and secrets as well as anyone.
“I actually camped right over there,” Aquino said, pointing to a spot in the woods, “about 200 yards from here.”
Part of the problem Village of Hope intends to remedy is the constant displacement of houseless camps. Aquino said he’s been forced to move 20 times in the last two months. Wheeler said she’s had to relocate eight times within the same period.
“I’ve been swept by all of them,” Wheeler said, “the rangers, the cops and Rapid Response.”
“Lance would follow a chipmunk trail to find you,” Aquino said, referring to Lance Hamel, owner of Rapid Response Bioclean, a city subcontractor that often cleans up debris in the area. Under Mayor Wheeler, campsite sweeps and "clean-ups" have ramped up to record levels.
An organized village like Village of Hope doesn't have much precedent in an area so far removed from services, but homeless advocates insist their latest project won't be injecting a homeless population into a new area. Kimes says houseless Portlanders are already staying near Big Four Corners. He believes the Village of Hope will actually protect the local ecology by providing structure and regular cleaning.
Village of Hope will operate under a code of conduct similar to that of Right 2 Dream Too or Dignity Village: no drug or alcohol use on site, no violence or fighting, no stealing. Sunday’s build featured blue cupcakes, burritos, and the feel of an Amish barn raising — but more covert.
It was similar, in fact, to another encampment Lake attempted to create in 2016. In May of that year, Lake and other advocates swooped onto a piece of city-owned land near Lents Town Center to set up a camp that was to serve as a sanctuary for homeless domestic violence survivors. The group stuck it out on the site for a number of days, but left when Mayor Charlie Hales’ office vowed to find them another city-owned plot for the camp. That never happened.
Lake says she’s learned her lesson. If the city attempts to push Village of Hope residents out, they’ll dig deeper.
“We will be chill if the city is chill,” Lake said. If official forces show up to clear the new encampment, she says, organizers will bring supporters out in force.
The Village of Hope’s “Opening” event is 11 a.m. Monday at 17001 NE Airport Way.