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Controversial Old Town lot sprouts new homeless camp

Right2DreamTwo brings a tent city to site next to Chinatown Gate
by: Christopher Onstott Brad Gipson starts construction on a fence made of doors that the will surround an empty lot, turned homeless camp at the corner of Northwest Fourth Avenue and West Burnside Street. 

Tribune Photo/Christopher Onstott

One of downtown Portland's most visible and controversial undeveloped pieces of property begins to take on a new look Monday as a campsite for the homeless.

The new encampment confronts visitors to downtown just as they cross the Burnside Bridge, and will likely confront city officials as a vexing development issue in the days and weeks ahead.

The property is owned Michael Wright, who has been locked in a feud with city officials over the vacant lot next to the Chinatown Gate on West Burnside Street. For years, Wright had Cindy's Adult Bookstore on the site, until the city forced Wright to close the business along with its laundry list of code violations and reputed criminal activities. Since 2007 the property has been a vacant, gravel-topped lot.

Last year, Wright tried to earn income on the property by renting it to two food cart owners. The carts enlivened the site and appeared to scare off the homeless people who regularly used the back wall adjoining the property as a toilet.

But in the spring, the city's Bureau of Development Services told Wright that someone had complained about the illegally sited food carts and Wright had to have them removed. The food carts were sitting on gravel, which violated city regulations. If Wright paved his property that would constitute turning it into a parking lot. Since the city has a moratorium on new downtown parking lots, that also would be against city regulations.

The food carts were removed in June.

Using the restroom

On Oct. 6, Wright, who has murder and drug dealing convictions in his past, signed a lease with his latest tenant, a homeless organization called Right2DreamTwo. During the weekend, led by homeless advocate Ibrahim Mubarak, one of the founders of Dignity Village in Northeast Portland, Right2DreamTwo began the minimal construction necessary to turn Wright's property into a downtown homeless encampment that Mubarak says will be home to 30 to 50 people sleeping in tents.

The first campers are expected to move in Monday.

The property already has running water and electricity. Mubarak says for now, campers will use the city's nearby public restrooms - the Portland Loo - or the facilities of nearby homeless shelters, including Bud Clark Commons, which opened this summer and includes a day center.

Mubarak says the private property encampment is legal. His organization has applied to become a federal nonprofit entity, it has a lease for the site and has purchased liability insurance. No cooking will be done on the site, so each day sandwiches will be served or pre-cooked hot meals will be brought in and served.

During the weekend, workers constructed a fence around the property that Mubarak says will include an entrance and a fire exit.

'We have checked everything,' Mubarak says.

Fighting 'nail and hand'

City officials might have a different view of the project. Ross Caron, spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Development Services, says the city's property maintenance code includes a number of rules governing the use of tents on private property. 'You can't just set up a tent camp,' Caron says.

But development services regulations are part of a complaint-driven process. That means the city doesn't enforce the regulations unless somebody complains.

Wright expects someone to complain to the Bureau of Development Services. 'I tried to utilize the property in a number of different ways to generate income and everywhere I turned the city denied me use of the property,' he says. 'I thought I could at least help the homeless with it. I want to thank the city of Portland for herding me in the proper direction.'

Mubarak says his organization is prepared to answer complaints and city investigations.

'They'll try to close it down,' Mubarak says. 'People try to do a lot of things. We're going to fight them nail and hand. We're here for the long run.'

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