Kenneth Huey

On April 10, a group of Portland developers unveiled plans for what looks like a bright-green circus tent under the west end of the Broadway Bridge.

By the end of the 2018, developer Homer Williams promised, the structure will be up and running as a “navigation center” for Portland’s homeless population. Along with providing short-term housing for up to 100 adult men, the facility will act as a kind of triage center for those looking for a way out of homelessness. Mayor Ted Wheeler said the city would donate the property, which is currently owned by Prosper Portland, while Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle promised to donate $1.5 million to Oregon Harbor of Hope, the homelessness nonprofit overseen by Williams, to bankroll the building’s construction.

Unlike Multnomah County’s current temporary shelters, which are located in privately-owned buildings, this new facility will have no set closure date—making it the city’s first permanent shelter run on public land and using private funds. But while everyone who works with Portland’s homeless population welcome new solutions (and funding), the property’s rocky past and mysterious future have made advocates cautious to fully embrace the project.

Their discomfort began in 2013, when Williams, a key developer behind the Pearl District and South Waterfront, objected to the city’s decision to move homeless community Right 2 Dream Too (R2D2) into a vacant lot under the Northwest Lovejoy ramp to the Broadway Bridge. Williams complained that the proposed site was “a stone’s throw” from his brand-new $49.5 million Residence Inn. After a long back-and-forth, Williams eventually won the battle by essentially paying R2D2 to relocate across the river to the Rose Quarter.

William’s new city-approved shelter, however, is also “a stone’s throw” from his hotel—and just across the Amtrak rails from the site he kept R2D2 out of.

R2D2 co-founder Ibrahim Mubarak says this illustrates a clear double standard within City Hall.

“When a grassroots community asks to use space, and the city says, ‘No, you can’t be here,’ but when developers come in with their plan, they say ‘Yes’—that’s problematic,” Mubarak says. “I’m kind of disappointed in the city. But maybe they learned their lesson.”

Boyle also has a tenuous relationship with the homeless. In a November editorial in the Oregonian, he threatened to pull the company’s new Sorel brand headquarters out of downtown, citing harassment of his employees by homeless individuals. The editorial prompted Mayor Wheeler to impose a sitting ban on a number of sidewalks near the store—a move that enraged homeless advocates.

So is Williams and Boyle’s shiny new homeless shelter merely an attempt to appease a community they’ve repeatedly clashed with?

The proposed new "navigation center." Harbor of Hope

Andy Miller, the executive director of Human Solutions, a nonprofit that offers both short-term shelters and long-term housing assistance to the Portland’s homeless population, doesn’t think so.

“I believe the developers are coming from a good place,” Miller says. “But housing is the first and last conversation we need to be having.”

While shelters may play a role in ending homelessness, Miller believes that establishing permanent affordable housing is far more important. He says he hasn’t seen the city prioritizing longer-term solutions like offering rental assistance or “master leasing,” the practice of encouraging developers to lease entire apartment complexes to homeless organizations that are willing to serve as those buildings’ landlords.

“That’s the main concern among the advocacy community,” says Miller, who’s been working with Portland’s homeless for decades. “At what point does the desire to increase resources like shelters and navigation centers become primarily focused on just moving our homeless community out of sight? I get uncomfortable when frustration is manifested in inhumanity toward the community.”

Williams says that investing in permanent housing isn’t a practical solution right now.

“First thing you want to do is stabilize [the homeless], and then you can start to make long-term plans,” Williams tells the Mercury.

Williams believes the city’s swelling homelessness crisis will only end if the federal government places Portland under the control of martial law. That’s right—the worst-case-scenario practice where Congress decides the military should take control of a civilian government to maintain “public order.”

CORRECTION: Williams contacted the Mercury to note that he was referring not to martial law, as we erroneously reported, but to the Marshall Plan—the 1948 agreement in which the US sent billions in economic assistance to Western European countries after World War II. Martial law is a VERY DIFFERENT THING, and we regret the error.

In the meantime, he’s unsuccessfully attempted to secure campus-sized homeless shelters at both the city’s Terminal 1 warehouse property and the county’s Wapato Jail.

“Nobody understands this situation,” he says. “Homelessness is going to overwhelm this city. There’s not enough money, not enough time [to build permanent housing]. That’s the bottom line.”

At the moment it’s unclear if there’s even enough money to fund his new shelter. While Boyle has bankrolled the construction of the new shelter, no one has stepped up to cover its operating costs.

This gives Miller pause. “Based on experience, the majority of the cost of running a shelter is operational, not the construction of it,” he says. “How much of that cost will be demanded from the public?”

Neither the city nor the county has stepped up to offer additional funding—yet.

“I would hope other [private donors] step forward,” says Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. She says that while the county’s Joint Office of Homeless Services will collaborate with the shelter, “Both the mayor and I have made it clear that the government can’t do it alone.”

According to developer Don Mazziotti, a Harbor of Hope board member and former head of the Portland Development Commission (now called Prosper Portland), the shelter is actively looking to other private entities to cover costs.

“Given the magnitude of both homelessness and affordable housing in Portland,” he says, “this requires collaboration with [the] private sector.”

Aside from funding costs, another key element has yet to be decided: Who’s going to run the shelter? Williams’ Harbor of Hope organization was created to raise funds and “create comprehensive solutions” to move Portland’s homeless individuals to permanent housing—not to handle the day-to-day requirements of operating and maintaining a homeless shelter.

Williams says that in the next month or so, he’ll issue a request for proposal (RFP) to agencies interested in running the shelter. He also said he’d like to work more closely with the faith community, a group he says has been “underutilized” by the city.

The obvious existing operator is Transition Projects, the city’s largest shelter provider that provides “wraparound services” for veterans and their families, such as programs to connect clients to long-term housing, employment, health care, school, and childcare.

Transition Projects Director George Devendorf says he’s been helping Harbor of Hope make staffing and design decisions over the past few months, like advising Williams to cap the bed count at 120. He declined to say if he’d submit an RFP.

Right 2 Dream Too’s Mubarak advised against letting the city or county take too active a role in operating the shelter, and suggested that community members and advocates lead instead. He says he’s heard too many stories of homeless individuals feeling managed by city service providers, but not listened to.

Despite his shaky history with Williams, Mubarak is hopeful about the shelter’s future.

“I take my hat off to Homer Williams for his intent. I’m curious to see how he will do it,” Mubarak says. “Anything that’s going to help the homeless community is a good thing.”