Architectural sketch of the planned navigation center.
Architectural sketch of the planned navigation center. Harbor of Hope

As houseless Portlanders woke to nearly two inches of snow Tuesday morning, city officials joined private developers in kicking off a project that's promised to significantly expand the region's permanent shelter network before next winter.

At 7:30 am, the bundled groups of city leaders broke ground on the long-awaited bright-green homeless shelter coming to Northwest Portland.

The new tent-like facility will act as a "navigation center" for homeless Portlanders. This means that, along with offering 120 shelter beds for temporary respite, the facility will help connect guests with health care, addiction recovery programs, longterm supportive housing, and other services addressing issues that often keep people from finding a home.

The project was first proposed by Harbor of Hope, a homeless solutions nonprofit led by developer Homer Williams, in April 2018. The facility will be built with private dollars—$1.5 million from Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle and $3.5 million from Harbor of Hope's fundraising efforts—on the city-owned land that lies beneath the Northwest Lovejoy ramp to the Broadway Bridge. The shelter and programming will be run by Transition Projects.

The property lies across the train tracks from the former location of peer-led homeless camp Right 2 Dream Too. Ironically, Williams forced that camp to relocate to the Rose Quarter after complaining about its proximity to the $49.5 million Residence Inn he owns.

“One thing I realized is that we’re all going to have to be involved," Williams said when announcing the project in April. ”We can’t have people pooping in bushes, drinking bad water, not getting enough sleep, we’re a better country and city than that.”

But the investment that Williams, Boyle, and other business leaders have put into this project have given some homeless advocates pause for being an ingenuous marketing tool, one that could put public services into the hands of private developers.

Transition Projects Director George Devendorf dismissed these theories. While private dollars may be bankrolling the center's construction, the publicly-funded Joint Office of Homeless Services (JOHS) will cover the annual operating costs of $1 million.

"The navigation center will be operated just like other Transition Projects shelters that are funded by the Joint Office," said Devendorf. According to Devendorf, the center's structure and programming is modelled after similar facilities in San Francisco and Seattle.

The center will prioritize adults and couples over 50 that have been categorized as "chronically homeless"—or, people who haven't been able to find reliable housing for a while due to their health, finances, or any other contributing factors. Guests will be allowed to stay up to 30 days. Like many Portland shelters, the center will be "low-barrier," meaning guests aren't required to be sober when then enter, and can bring their pets with them.

The center will not be a drop-in site for anyone seeking help. Instead, prospective visitors will need to call a reservation hotline or register in person at Bud Clark Commons, another Transition Projects facility just three blocks from the planned center.

Williams originally promised the facility would be up and running by the end of 2018—but the timeline was delayed by a number of neighborhood conflicts, permitting delays, and environmental cleanup work. The center now promises a June 2019 start date.

However, a pending lawsuit threatens to extend this deadline. In November, private developer Jim Winkler appealed the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality' (DEQ) decision to green-light the navigation center without completely removing the leftover industrial waste from the property's soil. The DEQ did place a temporary concrete "cap" on the soil to prevent exposure (a fix that will be reconsidered in five years), but Winkler says its not enough to protect the health of homeless Portlanders. (What's not mentioned is that Winkler owns property adjacent to the lot, and probably fears his land will lose value once a homeless shelter sets up shop next door.)

In an FAQ about the navigation center provided by Harbor of Hope, the nonprofit calls Winkler "an excellent developer and citizen," but argues that the navigation center will improve the quality of life in the neighborhood—rather than detract from it. The state asked a Marion County judge to dismiss the appeal last month, but Winkler responded with a request for oral arguments.

It's still unclear how this pending litigation could impact the navigation center's success—and when construction will truly break ground on the site.