Portland’s first city-run, sanctioned outdoor camp for homeless residents is expected to be up and running in the Central Eastside by this summer, Mayor Ted Wheeler announced Thursday. While the lease agreement has yet to be finalized, California-based nonprofit Urban Alchemy is poised to run the 150-person camp at 1490 SE Gideon, despite strong reservations from local activists and houseless residents.

“Our collective goal should be to eliminate unsanctioned homeless camping anywhere in the city of Portland,” Wheeler said. “We can’t wait any longer, and the action starts today on this new strategy.”

Wheeler’s plan to end unsanctioned camping in Portland by ushering Portlanders into mass camps garnered strong reactions when it was announced in October. Portland intends to create six city-run outdoor tent camps, inspired in part by similar camps run by Urban Alchemy in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin. Urban Alchemy was selected as the operator for the first camp following a competitive bid process, during which no local service providers applied to run the camp, according to the Oregonian. Multiple local service providers voiced concerns with Wheeler's plan last year, arguing that it would merely be moving unhoused people around the city without addressing the dearth of affordable housing options and overburdened behavioral health services in Oregon.

"I appreciate the holistic approach and great ambition of these resolutions," Andy Miller, director of housing and shelter provider Our Just Future, said during a City Council meeting about the plan last year. "But I ultimately believe they are going to fall short and they do not fully account for the root causes of homelessness."

Urban Alchemy has also been subject to some controversy. The fast-growing nonprofit has been sued for allegedly violating labor laws, and accused of not paying its employees—the majority of whom are formerly incarcerated or have experienced homelessness—a living wage. Three unhoused people have also sued Urban Alchemy for civil rights violations. The organization has denied those allegations.

Despite concerns over mass encampments, the city dedicated $27 million to the effort, or enough to create three of the camps. Wheeler is in conversation with Governor Tina Kotek and Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson about jointly funding three additional camps, but the state and the county have not committed any funding to the effort.

Unhoused Portlanders have raised concerns about the size of the camps, noting that many people choose to avoid mass shelters and camps for personal safety concerns. The city’s initial plan also seemingly criminalized homelessness, threatening criminal penalties against people who declined to move into a sanctioned camp or shelter. During the press conference Thursday, Wheeler indicated that the city is moving away from legal punishment and is looking to create an incentive program where homeless Portlanders could have old warrants or fines expunged in exchange for moving into the outdoor camp, a safe rest village, or other transitional shelter model that would move people off the street. It’s unclear if there will be additional incentives for Portlanders without criminal records who don’t feel comfortable moving into a camp or shelter.

Homeless Portlanders who opt to go to the planned outdoor camp site would move to a site near SE 13th Place and SE Gideon, an industrial area straddling the Brooklyn and Hosford-Abernathy neighborhoods. Wheeler declined to share the duration and cost of the pending lease agreement. 

A map of the planned camp location. City of Portland

The site has support from the Central Eastside Industrial Council (CEIC), which represents business owners in the district area. According to CEIC board president Eric Cress, creating a sanctioned camp in the district is the next logical step after the area went through a recent “90-day reset,” during which the city increased police presence, trash pick up, and homeless camp sweeps in the area.

Wheeler said that businesses that have been contacted so far are supportive of the sanctioned site, which the city says will be patrolled by a service provider 16 hours per day and will feature a camping ban within 1,000 feet of the site. Residents and businesses within a half mile of the planned camp will receive a flier in the mail with information about the project and opportunities to join “Community Conversations”—two public forums about the planned camp in the coming weeks.

According to Urban Alchemy representatives, the sanctioned camps can provide a space for homeless Portlanders to “stabilize and decompress from a hyper-vigilant state that they experience on the street.”

“When we create environments of healing, environments of trust that gather people together,” Kirkpatrick Tyler of Urban Alchemy said, “what people are able to do is get back to themselves.”

In Portland, the inaugural camp will host 100 tents with a capacity for 150 people. The camp could be expanded to up to 250 people with approval from City Council. 

According to the city, residents will be offered two meals per day and a snack, access to hygiene services like bathrooms, showers, and laundry services, and be connected with other city services that can help move them into stable housing. There is no limit to how long people can stay in the camp, but Tyler said historically residents spend anywhere from three to nine months at the site. That timeline is significantly affected by the availability of housing within the region. According to Wheeler's office, Portland is currently short an estimated 20,000 housing units to meet housing demand.

The Mayor’s office has identified an additional two privately-owned sites in the city that could serve as sanctioned outdoor camps, as well as some city-owned locations. Urban Alchemy could take on the management of those additional camps, but interested local providers would also be considered.