Homeless campers may get a reprieve
- Peter Korn
- Portland Tribune - News
City permit could let Right 2 Dream Too campers stay put
Occupy Portland's downtown campsite is long gone, but Right 2 Dream Too, the campground for the homeless at West Burnside next to the Chinatown gate, has quietly gone about its business and may be about to gain semi-permanent status.
That's the latest word from the Portland Bureau of Development Services, which sent a letter three weeks ago informing Right 2 Dream Too leaders and owners of the property that they were in violation of city codes.
Property owner Michael Wright had signed a one-year, virtually rent-free lease with the nonprofit that runs Right 2 Dream Too, but the development services' letter threatened fines that could have reached $583 a month. That would effectively have shut down the campground, which has tents housing about 70 previously homeless men and women.
But somebody in City Hall decided to take a closer look at the situation, which has resulted in a new interpretation of city code.
Apparently, campgrounds are allowed on private property zoned for commercial uses, as long as property owners obtain a permit from the Bureau of Development Services and have the campground inspected.
Matt Grumm, policy manager for City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the development services bureau, says until Right 2 Dream Too came along, nobody had ever asked about locating a campground in the city.
'Anybody can have campsites on private property if they go through the proper process,' Grumm says.
So, Right 2 Dream Too has only to take out permits and lower the height of its exterior fence, which at nearly eight feet is about two feet too tall under city rules.
The fee for the campground permit could run about $700. That won't be a problem, says Mike O'Callaghan, secretary and treasurer of Right 2 Dream Too. 'We've got money in the bank,' he says.
The new bureau code interpretation was news to O'Callaghan when told of the development on Monday.
'They've never actually told us it could be legal,' says O'Callaghan, adding that he has meetings scheduled with City Hall staff next week.
Also on Monday, Right 2 Dream Too residents started selling Christmas trees to raise money. O'Callaghan says that he purchased the trees from a local tree farmer.
Regardless of how the sales go, he says, the campground's nonprofit had more than enough money from donations to pay the permit fee.
The prospect of a permanent campground at such a high-profile Chinatown site is sure to upset a number of Old Town/Chinatown residents and business owners, who have complained to the city and spoke up at a neighborhood meeting shortly after Right 2 Dream Too opened.
Some of those neighbors might have changed their opinions of the campsite,
Stephen Ying, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and a leader of the downtown Chinese community, says he was 'very upset' when he first heard about the campsite. He told Right 2 Dream Too leader Ibrahim Mubarek that the Chinese community was offended because the campground was next to the Chinatown gate.
Ying says he walks by the campground frequently and has seen Right 2 Dream Too residents picking up cigarette butts and dog feces off the ground. When a restaurant next door had its window broken, Right 2 Dream Too offered to pay half the cost of a replacement window.
'I see them being good neighbors,' Ying says.
Ying has changed his mind about letting Right 2 Dream Too stay. But, as a representative of the Chinese community, he is conflicted.
'The Chinese community doesn't want the campsite being there at the gate,' he says.
Being an exemplary neighbor has been part of the Right 2 Dream Too plan all along, according to O'Callaghan. In fact, he says that more than once Right 2 Dream Too representatives had unsuccessfully advised Occupy Portland campers that they needed to establish the same type of order.
Right 2 Dream Too has a fence around its property, with only one entrance and a doorman or doorwoman on duty so only permitted campers are allowed inside. In addition, rules outlawing drinking, drugs and violence at the campsite are strictly enforced.
According to O'Callaghan, more than two dozen campers have been evicted for not following the rules.
In a dramatic contrast to Occupy Portland, no arrests have been made of Right 2 Dream Too campers. In fact, there have been no police calls to the campground.
'Everyone here knows if they mess up, the whole camp loses,' O'Callaghan says.
Meanwhile, the possibility of more homeless campers in Portland took a step closer to reality this week, as a number of influential church leaders wrote a letter to City Commissioner Nick Fish and Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury supporting a city resolution allowing churches to host small campsites for homeless people.
The resolution would be modeled after a similar ordinance in Eugene and would allow smaller campsites than Right 2 Dream Too, 10 people or fewer residents in most cases, according to David Leslie, executive director of the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, which is spearheading the church effort.
Leslie says he doesn't yet have churches committed to hosting homeless campers, but that a city resolution making it legal should help him firm up commitments. The resolution could help the churches as well as the homeless, he adds.
'It's pretty exciting,' Leslie says. 'I think this is something that could energize, educate and allow churches to really say, 'What assets do we have that we could put to use right now?' '
Betsy Ames, Fish's chief of staff, says that the commissioner expects to introduce a resolution within two or three weeks based on the recommendation from church leaders.