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Old Town tent city may turn to churches

City deadline looms large over homeless camp's shaky future
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Homeless encampment, private club or budding church? Right 2 Dream Too, located next to the Chinatown Gate at Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street, faces an uncertain future and potential moves as a result of political maneuvering this week.

The fate of the tent city next to the Chinatown Gate in Old Town took a new turn this week when a number of public officials and organizations began to consider moving the encampment to another site.

Organizers of the camp, Right 2 Dream Too, told the Tribune that they would consider moving to another location, possibly on the grounds or parking lot of a church.

On Tuesday, a group of downtown church pastors met to discuss what they are doing to help the homeless. David Leslie, executive director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, a statewide association of churches, said some churches that attended said they probably would be willing to host an encampment if it were legal in Portland.

Leslie said the possibility of churches hosting homeless encampments is not a new idea for his organization. The Right 2 Dream Too camp, which was told nearly two weeks ago by city officials that it was in violation of regulations that restrict camping in the city, has brought more immediacy to those discussions.

Three weeks ago, Seattle's City Council adopted a resolution allowing homeless encampments on church property without permits as long as they meet health and safety conditions. Right 2 Dream Too spokespeople have said they would at least like to see a similar resolution here.

The city of Eugene also allows homeless camping, with some restrictions, on church property.

'A lot of (Portland) churches have parking lots that aren't being used and that could be potentially used for camping,' Leslie said. 'For a church to make that decision there are a lot of logistical issues. It's not to be taken lightly.'

Not going away

The Right 2 Dream Too Old Town site has drawn complaints from a number of Old Town property owners, including representatives of the Chinese community who feel it does not belong next to the Chinatown Gate.

On Wednesday, the Old Town/Chinatown Neighborhood Association public safety and land-use committees met jointly to discuss the camp. Committee Chairman Howard Weiner said he supported finding another site for Right 2 Dream Too outside of Old Town.

'I think this isn't the proper location for this development but we should as a community be supportive of the good work they're doing and advocate for another location,' Weiner said.

Weiner said he was struck by how well organized and maintained the Right 2 Dream Two encampment had become. The city's Bureau of Development Services potentially could fine property owner Michael Wright for code violations, Weiner said, but that was unlikely to solve the problem represented by the camp.

'I don't think it's going away,' he said. 'They'll leave if the landlord asks them to leave. But what will they do?'

Weiner said the campers might simply move on to public property, following the example of Occupy Portland demonstrators who have camped illegally on two city parks downtown since Oct. 6.

During Wednesday's meeting, Union Gospel Mission Executive Director Bill Russell said his group supported a local law based on Seattle's ordinance.

City Commissioner Nick Fish, who oversees housing and homeless policy for Portland, said a year ago housing bureau staff unsuccessfully posed the possibility of a church camping ordinance similar to those in Seattle and Eugene. Churches, with bathrooms and kitchens, and in some cases, experience in helping the homeless, already have the infrastructure to host homeless campers, he said.

'There was not much interest in City Hall to pursue that option,' Fish said. 'I didn't get much traction.'

But Fish is willing to consider the matter again, possibly in the form of a pilot project. 'The experiences in Eugene and Seattle suggest it might work here,' he said. 'Perhaps the times have changed and it will get a more favorable response.'

A new church?

But Right 2 Dream Too organizers were set to make a presentation before city council on Wednesday in support of a resolution that would go beyond the ordinances in Seattle and Eugene.

Mike O'Callaghan, secretary and treasurer of Right 2 Dream Too, said the board of directors of nonprofit Right 2 Survive, which helped set up the West Burnside campsite, is asking the city to allow campsites on both public and private property, and would work with the city to find sites that are away from public view.

'We don't think it's fair to dump all this on churches,' O'Callaghan said, noting that there are thousands of homeless people in Portland and that Right 2 Dream Too only has capacity for 70 campers. 'You can't go to 70 churches and say, 'Give us your parking lots.' '

Meanwhile, Wright, owner of the Old Town property leased to Right 2 Dream Too at Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street, says he has responded to the city's enforcement agents about potential code violations posed by the camp. He intends to fight any efforts to close the camp.

Told of discussions around allowing homeless camping on church property, Wright says, 'We may have to become a church.'