In a feisty, tightly worded letter (pdf) dropped off today at the Bureau of Development Services, organizers say the city has incorrectly decided to treat the site as an illegal recreational campsite. They also ask for help in tackling the other violation found by the city: a fence along West Burnside (made of donated, and painted, doors) that's two feet higher than the city's six-foot limit.
Our area is intended to serve a population that has no option other than sleeping outside. There is a wide gulf between operating a recreational facility with the goal of sheltering people on vacation and operating a facility with the goal of sheltering people who can not otherwise obtain safe shelter and experience a restful sleep. It is illogical to lump them under the same set of administrative rules. We strongly object to language that suggests anything we are doing is in any way related to recreational activities.
Organizers note that the campsite has had no public safety complaints—something even the city acknowledges—and that unlike, say, Occupy Portland, R2D2 comes with a one-year lease. In a twist of timing, the letter was dropped off the day before city council takes up Nick Fish's plan for small-scale overnight sleeping in vehicles parked on church/nonprofit lots.
City officials, meanwhile, are taking a circumspect view of R2D2's notice. BDS officials will take about two weeks (although that may stretch longer because of the holidays) to investigate and issue a response. If organizers disagree with that response, says BDS spokesman Ross Caron, they can then seek an administrative hearing. Caron said it was too soon to comment on the points raised in the R2D2 letter.
In the meantime, the city is preparing what Caron says will be a $641 fine on January 1—a sum he said would double after three months.
"We've started the monthly penalties because there's been no substantial action taken by the property owner or the tenants" on complying with code, he says. "Those fines will continue until they come into compliance."
As has been previously reported, recreational campgrounds are actually, technically, allowed in Portland—but the road to such a permit for R2D2's tent city won't be easy. Organizers will need to meet state requirements on safety and also build a bathroom that taps into the city's sewer lines. That'll mean big bucks and trigger additional building reviews best navigated with the help of high-priced consultants.
Even an appeal in front of a hearings officer won't be cheap for a group that's relied on donations and goodwill to tend to the 80 people who've been at the site. Getting a hearing will cost $1,215, says Caron. That fee is refundable only if a hearings officer sides with an appellant.
R2D2 folks also are hoping that BDS takes into account the positive impact they've had on those who sleep there. A few have gone on to more permanent housing and have even gotten work. A lack of a safe place to sleep is one of the most bedeviling things about life on the streets, organizers say—especially with the social services system so strapped that there aren't enough shelter beds for hundreds of people on any given day.
• Because the City of Portland can not provide an adequate supply of shelter space for unhoused people, the population served by Right 2 Dream Too's rest area has no choice but to violate one or more of various city ordinances, especially 14A.50.020 (Camping Prohibited on Public Property and Public Rights of Way.) and 14A.50.030 (Sidewalk Use.). We understand that BDS is not responsible for enforcement of those or other ordinances that have the effect of criminalizing unhoused people, but we believe it is relevant for the Director to consider that people, because of their economic circumstances, impacted by the Bureau's actions in this case have no alternatives to violating ordinances, whatever the Bureau's actions.
• It is cruel and unusual punishment to force people making use of Right 2 Dream Too's area back into the streets because we were not aware of the necessity of pursing an area development permit nor in possession of sufficient resources to open our site to the unhoused and investigate the process simultaneously. The court in Pottinger v. City of Miami, 810 F. Supp. 1551, 1580 (S.D. Fla. 1992) recognized that a place to sleep and cover from the elements, among other things, are necessities of life. We think it is relevant for the Director to consider that the Bureau's actions in this case could deprive those using Right 2 Dream Too's area of both of those things and would have a severe impact on their health and well-being.
Organizers met with Dan Saltzman, commissioner in charge of BDS, last week, his office said. But Saltzman isn't offering much help—although he did allow the group five extra days to file today's appeal. The deadline, technically, was December 15.
"The Commissioner was very clear in the meeting that everyone has equal standing under our code and he wants to make sure we appropriately enforce that," said policy adviser Matt Grumm. "He can't wave a magic wand and make the code go away.
"He wants this to be legal or not there anymore."