A communication breakdown between Portland city commissioners last week has drawn new attention to the uncertain future of Hazelnut Grove, the tiny house village that's currently home to 17 formerly houseless individuals. The confusion added a wrinkle to the delicate, years-long process to relocate the village, which sits on a triangle of city-owned land between N Greeley and Interstate.
"I don't think they realize they're playing with people's lives right now," said Barbie Weber, a homeless advocate who's lived in Hazelnut Grove for almost a year. "They're too focused on playing politics."
At issue is how much longer the 5-year-old village's current tenants have before the city cuts off its minimal services to the community and begins tearing down homes.
The city has allowed the independently run village to operate on city land with the caveat that once a city-run tiny home village opens in nearby St. Johns neighborhood, Hazelnut Grove's tenants will either relocate to the new space or find another spot to call home. Either way, the city doesn't want the village to remain at their current location, which is particularly vulnerable to landslides and wildfires.
In late January, the city announced that this new village in St. Johns—a cluster of 19 sleeping pods with a shared kitchen, laundry, and restrooms called St. Johns Village—was set to open within a few months. That meant the city would soon stop providing the services it currently offers Hazelnut Grove, including trash pickup and toilet services, and remove city-owned items from the property, including a large storage facility and a chainlink fence surrounding the village.
These services cost the city about $1,500 a month, a price that's accompanied with the ever-present fear of costly litigation. The city remains liable for anything that happens at Hazelnut Grove, even if they don't play any operational role in the village. (In May 2020, the city paid a $202,500 settlement to a woman whose home was damaged and dog killed in a 2016 fire sparked by tenants of Forgotten Realms, a now-defunct homeless camp that had popped up on city property.) All of the city costs associated with Hazelnut Grove have come out of the Homeless and Urban Camping Impact Reduction Program (HUCIRP) budget, a department overseen by the Mayor Ted Wheeler.
Hazelnut Grove tenants aren't thrilled with this relocation plan.
According to multiple residents, only five people who currently live at Hazelnut Grove plan to move into St. Johns Village. While Hazelnut Grove tenants had previously agreed to move once the city found another village space, several say they were promised the replacement would have the same level of autonomy as Hazelnut Grove. St. Johns Village, however, is managed by nonprofit Do Good Multnomah, and residents will be connected with social workers to help them eventually move into traditional housing. Many Hazelnut Grove residents, like Weber and her husband, don't see their tiny home life as temporary, and want to live somewhere stable where they won't be required to relocate again.
Weber and others plan on remaining at Hazelnut Grove until they crowdfund enough money to purchase another piece of land to move to. They had hoped the city would continue to provide services until that point.
Last Wednesday, the Portland Tribune reported that Wheeler was still committed to the plan announced in January, and planned on halting those extra services as soon as March. But this assertion was quickly contradicted by Commissioner Dan Ryan, who's been partially involved in the conversation as the city commissioner who oversees the Joint Office of Homeless Services. On Thursday, Ryan confidently tweeted that the city would continue to provide the current services to Hazelnut Grove for six more months.
Wheeler's office told the Tribune that wasn't the case, and that Ryan was mistaken. By Friday, city staff who've spent the years planning this transition had no idea where city officials stood on the issue. And after a late Friday meeting with Sam Adams (former-mayor-turned-Wheeler-staffer), Hazelnut Grove residents found themselves equally confused.
"All I know is that we aren't going to be forcibly removed," said Weber, who spoke with Adams Friday.
Joshua Maurice, who's lived in Hazelnut Grove since 2017, said the lack of clarity was destabilizing, and further weakened the trust between village residents and the city.
"Part of me wonders if the flip-flopping is some kind of tactic to demoralize us," said Maurice. "Or maybe it should be encouraging to see some uncertainty and hesitancy about what should be done. It shows they're really thinking it over."
According to Jim Middaugh, a spokesperson for Wheeler's office, the plan is all but final: The city will stop paying for services and begin removing the fence, storage container, and empty houses from Hazelnut Grove when St. Johns Village opens, presumably next month. At that point, the village will be treated like any other homeless encampment during COVID-19, meaning the city will provide residents with a porta-potty, hand-washing station, and trash pickup. Asked if Hazelnut Grove residents will receive a "no camping" notice mandating they relocate or have their property taken by city contractors—a process that anyone houseless in Portland is familiar with— Middaugh said, "there's no plan to do that."
On Monday, Ryan's office signaled it was now in agreement with Wheeler's plan to halt services to Hazelnut Grove when St. Johns Village opens.
For Weber, the end of these services mean the end of safety at Hazelnut Grove.
"When the fence goes down, our only sense of security goes away," said Weber, who dealt with daily threats of assault when she was homeless in downtown Portland. "It's a huge part to our stability here."
The village is located by a bike path used by both spandexed cyclists and people Weber says have threatened her community with theft, assault, or other forms of harassment. While Hazelnut Grove residents maintain 24-hour security shifts on the premises, the secure chain-link fence and its locked front gate give residents a level of extra protection from those wanting to take advantage of the vulnerable community. It also keeps tenants' dogs out of the bike path and protected from running into the busy lanes of N Interstate traffic.
"The city says they're worried about our safety, because of these environmental hazards," said Weber. "But they're actually putting us in more danger."
Maurice plans on moving to St. Johns Village next month, but doesn't believe that means Hazelnut Grove should be demolished, especially since it's still providing shelter to people who would otherwise be sleeping on the street.
"People can still benefit from this space," he said. "Why should we take that away?"
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty shares Maurice's concerns. On Monday, she told the Mercury that she is "morally unsettled" with her colleagues' plan to cut Hazelnut Grove services in the middle of winter during a catastrophic pandemic.
"If we have open space with a history of providing stability to our unhoused neighbors, we must utilize it," she said. "We have an obligation to provide more dignified shelter options throughout the city because we don’t yet have enough housing people can truly afford to live in.”
Hardesty's office plans on meeting with Hazelnut Grove residents Tuesday to learn more about the situation.
Wheeler's office is expected to release a statement this week to clear up last week's confusion. In the meantime, Maurice said, his neighbors are rushing to create "Plan B, C, and Ds" to prepare for whatever the city announces next. One of those plans, he said, is crowdsourcing funds to cover the monthly cost of the fence and storage facility. Another is scouting out places to camp if the city begins deconstructing their homes. If it comes to that, Weber said, "the city will essentially be putting people out on the street who have been stable."
"And [the city is] knowingly doing it," she said. "That’s the sad part."