EVERY NOW and again, someone utters the useless truism that “Portland is a city of neighborhoods.”
The saying is supposed to reflect a unique flavor imparted by the 95 distinct neighborhoods within city limits, but it’s really just a tired cliché. What decent sized city isn’t a “city of neighborhoods,” after all?
Still, the sentiment has come to mind more than once lately, as neighborhood associations throughout Portland have aired new, novel, and often-contradictory approaches to dealing with the city’s rising homeless population.
Laurelhurst recently sought heightened criminal penalties for homeless people camping near the park (Mayor Ted Wheeler said no). Montavilla wanted the city to stop sweeping homeless camps altogether (which got the same answer from Wheeler).
And now we’ve got Overlook—my own neighborhood—floating one of the more head-scratching proposals to date.
This week, the Overlook Neighborhood Association (OKNA) board planned to take up an item aimed at preventing homeless people from participating in its monthly meetings. A proposed amendment to the association’s bylaws would have dictated that residents have a “legal address and domicile” within the neighborhood in order to qualify for membership.
It’s a sinister, tone-deaf, and wholly discriminatory idea that’s opposite the direction the city should be headed—but the OKNA insisted it had merit.
Under current city rules, the association argued, “it is possible that anyone who happens to be in the neighborhood on the day of a meeting could be eligible to vote. This includes houseless individuals camping illegally in Overlook or squatters occupying a vacant building.”
Of course, OKNA’s real concerns aren’t nearly so broad.
Since late 2015, the group’s been at war with Hazelnut Grove, the self-run homeless encampment at North Greeley and Interstate. The association has pressured the city to set conditions for a formal permit, to no avail. The two parties have engaged in mediation in an effort to adopt a “good-neighbor agreement,” without success.
So instead, the OKNA considered freezing the homeless encampment out of neighborhood process unless it got its way. Under the new membership requirements, Hazelnut Grove residents would be ineligible to participate in meetings unless they got a city permit (and therefore a “legal address”).
Thankfully, the city once again said no. The Office of Neighborhood Involvement (ONI) sent a letter to OKNA on August 11, threatening to cease officially recognizing the group if it pressed forward. ONI notes its rules prioritize inclusion and prevent associations from discriminating on the basis of income.
“I thought the language [of the proposal] was deplorable,” ONI Interim Director Dave Austin told me. “It’s not helping us, as a city, [to] solve problems.”
The OKNA wanted to explore its options. After receiving the letter, the group’s board scheduled a special meeting to discuss next steps. Notably, Chair Chris Trejbal argued the group could still advocate for neighbors without the city’s formal recognition.
Instead, the group blinked. At Tuesday’s meeting, Trejbal announced he was tabling the bylaw, and accused Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees ONI, of “bullying.” But the larger observation about neighborhood flavor still holds.
Consider: On August 14, the St. Johns Neighborhood Association took up a bylaw tweak of its own, to be voted on next month.
Far from excluding houseless Portlanders like Overlook, St. Johns is proposing to specifically allow them to join.
It’s a city of neighborhoods, after all.