Updated with new comment from Mayor Ted Wheeler's office.
Mayor Ted Wheeler has pulled the plug on the latest potential home for Right 2 Dream Too, once again leaving the respected homeless rest area with months to vacate its current site but no certainty about a new home. And with no one left to hold the reins, it appears possible the six-year-old camp could be forced out of existence (at least sanctioned existence).
Commissioner Amanda Fritz tells the Mercury she learned earlier today that Wheeler won't support a planned move of the camp to a Parks Bureau-owned plot of land on Southwest Naito.
Fritz—who's worked for years to find R2DToo a new home—had planned to move the camp to the lot in coming months. But she couldn't do so without Wheeler's buy in, since the mayor controls the Office of Management and Finance, which would have oversight over the camp.
"The mayor has decided we will not move forward," Fritz says, adding she'll now turn over the job of finding a place for R2DToo to Wheeler. "At this point, he is the housing commissioner. He's also the commissioner in charge of the [Portland Development Commission]."
Wheeler's sway over the PDC is potentially important because the urban renewal agency has tentative plans to purchase the site at W Burnside and 4th where R2DToo has resided for roughly six years. Under that deal, the camp has until April 7 to vacate to another plot of land.
Fritz, who says she's "disappointed," has no idea where that will be.
"This was my last, and in some ways best, proposal," she says. "I've looked at literally hundreds of sites over the last three years."
Wheeler's office isn't sure where the camp will be either. And crucially, Wheeler isn't committed to finding the camp a new plot of land, says spokesperson Michael Cox.
"The mayor’s clear when he says he supported the commissioner’s efforts to find a new place," says Cox. "This was her effort."
And while Cox says the mayor is "open to other solutions as they present themselves," if none arrive it's possible the longtime camp could have no place to call its own in April. "That's one possibility," Cox says.
But that's a potentially fraught proposition. In 2014, when a group of Pearl District developers stopped R2DToo from moving to the Pearl District, they kicked the camp nearly $850,000 to find a new home. The city burned through much of that money in an unsuccessful attempt to site the camp on the Central Eastside, but officials suggested last year that the city would reimburse the camp for those costs.
Cox couldn't say whether that was still the case this afternoon.
"This is a really challenging set of circumstances," he said. "Our commitment is to addressing the challenges around homelessness write large."
Earlier this afternoon, Cox said via text message that the mayor "supports Commissioner Fritz's efforts to find a new location, but understands how challenging that can be, The mayor has spoken to businesses, workers, and residents of the area and they are nearly uniform in their opposition."
Opposition, though, is pretty much the rule when it comes to siting homeless camps in this city.
Fritz's interview with the Mercury is the first public comment the commissioner has offered on her latest proposal to relocate R2DToo. Past proposals—to move the camp into the Pearl District and to the Central Eastside—were ultimately stalled by neighbors' opposition.
With her latest plan to move the camp to a parking lot at SW Naito and Market, Fritz was hoping to quietly sell the idea to neighbors before making it public. But when the Oregonian published news of the possible move last week, her office was lit up with emails from neighbors of the site. Of particular note for Fritz—and apparently Wheeler—were concerns from parents and teachers affiliated with the International School, a K-5 school not far from the proposed location.
Fritz says she was planning to meet with school administrators at 4 pm today to sell the idea, but she's now canceled.
The parking lot Fritz had in mind was by no means ideal. The Portland Water Bureau already had a prior claim to the land, which it plans to use as a staging ground for a massive water pipe it plans to build under the Willamette River. With that construction set to begin next year, it's likely R2DToo would have had to find another home in short order.
Wheeler's office hasn't said whether it has any ideas for where to site R2DToo, and Cox says the mayor's office has not considered somehow allowing the camp to stay on at its current home past April 7.
The mayor's office is familiar with the area where the homeless camp could have gone. As Wheeler was preparing to move into City Hall last year, his transition team was headquartered for a time in the Crown Plaza building, which overlooks the site. The Oregonian reported in August that Wheeler's staff was on the ninth floor, and that the space was given for free, as an in-kind donation from real estate company Melvin Mark to Wheeler's campaign committee.
Cox says Wheeler didn't speak with anyone associated with that arrangement before making his decision.
"We had a lot of people calling the office," he says.
R2DToo's situation is complicated by the fact that the rest area's current landlords were just sued by local developers, who want it out of the Old Town lot. And prospects for finding a new home diminished somewhat last year, when Central Eastside business owners secured a state decision (rightly) solidifying the idea that R2DToo counts as a "mass shelter" under city code. Officials had argued it didn't fit the description, which conveniently opened up more potential sites.
Still, city zoning code doesn't hold as much sway these days as it used to. The Portland City Council extended the city's formal housing emergency designation last year, which allows officials to override some parts of the code to site new shelters. The state of emergency is now slated to expire in October, but could be renewed again.