WHEN ADVOCATES set up dozens of tents along SW 4th last week ahead of this year's Grand Floral Parade, it was business as usual in the fight for homeless rights in Portland.
For the past three years, organizers with the group Right 2 Survive have used the demonstration—on the one day of the year Portland openly allows sidewalk camping—to highlight the plight of Portlanders whose motivation for setting up tents is far removed from parade watching.
"Any other time someone does it as a means of survival, they are criminalized," says Ibrahim Mubarak, an organizer of the effort.
But if the message is the same, the political landscape may have subtly shifted in the advocates' favor.
That's because Commissioner Amanda Fritz, appointed as of June 3 to helm the Portland Bureau of Development Services (BDS), is now in charge of one of the most awkward and seemingly intractable issues vexing Portland City Hall: the fate of Right 2 Dream Too.
The well-run, self-managed "rest area" for the homeless down on NW 4th and Burnside has been a sticky mess ever since it sprang up nearly two years ago in the shadow of Occupy Portland. Absent clear political direction from BDS' previous commissioner, Dan Saltzman, the city has treated R2DToo like an illegal "recreational" campsite—fining it thousands of dollars. After months of talks that went nowhere, the group sued the city last winter.
But Fritz's jurisdiction could prove interesting. She was an early advocate for the site, trying and failing last year to broker a compromise with her colleagues that would end the code fines. Now that BDS is Fritz's to run, she's got a freer hand. And her staff says she's going to look anew at helping the effort.
"We'd always been talking with colleagues on council about other possibilities," says Fritz's chief of staff, Tom Bizeau. "We've always been trying to figure out a solution. And we still are. Now that we've got it in our portfolio, we'll dig down and see if there's any way to resolve what's really been an impasse."
R2DToo's backers are clearly intrigued by the potential breath of fresh air.
Says Michael Moore, of Right 2 Survive: "I would have hoped that Saltzman would have seen that as his role, addressing the bigger issues."
But it's likely nothing will happen until the lawsuit against the city is resolved. That could happen as soon as next month—a hearing is set for July 11—and it's likely the city will prevail.
According to Mark Kramer, R2DToo's attorney, the city has asked Multnomah County Circuit Judge Karin Immergut to toss the lawsuit on procedural grounds. City attorneys argue R2DToo should have "exhausted" all available appeals before filing its suit. After the first fines were assessed, R2DToo chose not to raise $1,215 for what it saw as an unlikely appeal in front of a city hearings officer. The city, unlike the courts system, doesn't offer fee waivers or deferrals.
"They didn't have the money," Kramer says. "The city says, 'Too bad. Now you can't go to the court to seek relief.'"
Kramer is hoping to convince Immergut that R2DToo was too broke to appeal. And also that, because of Fritz's efforts, it had decided to wait for a political solution instead of something bureaucratic.
If the lawsuit is booted, it might not be all bad for the site. Kramer says he contacted Mayor Charlie Hales' office earlier this year and that he exchanged emails with staffers Matthew Robinson and Baruti Artharee, Hales' public safety policy director (who, until Tuesday, June 4, served as Hales' housing liaison.)
"They were warm. They wanted to sit down," says Kramer.
Until, that is, "they spoke with the city attorney. And next they were cold and harsh. 'We're not going to do anything for you.'"
Right 2 Dream Too is currently in its second annual lease on the property, owned by seasoned city antagonist Michael Wright. The group first rented the lot, for a buck, in October 2011. The current lease expires this year.
Among its terms: Even though Wright and his business partners are technically on the hook for the city's fines, Right 2 Dream Too is in charge of paying them.
Dozens of people a night stay at R2DToo—enjoying a safe place to sleep and, in some cases, using that as a springboard for getting their affairs in order and seeking jobs and schooling and permanent housing.
R2DToo has amassed serious fines in this fight—they'd topped $17,000 as of April. The group is putting money in escrow, money that it says could be spent on other needs, including site improvements.
Even with all the money worries, organizers and volunteers have been busy. Another code issue, the site's eight-foot fence of donated doors on West Burnside, has been fixed so it now complies with the city's six-foot rule. And the place has slowly improved its overall appearance.
Moore and Kramer both say they'd welcome discussions about finding some other place to run the site, provided it's near social services and transit.
The city has been tepidly interested, they say, but hardly proactive.
"I don't think anyone believes we'll be there forever," Moore says. "The whole point is to demonstrate that we can do this. There are super-low-cost ways to deal with the [housing] crisis while it's still happening, and it still is. There are alternatives to people being criminalized for sleeping in parks and doorways.
"That's always been the point."