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PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JAIME VALDEZ - Linda Jo Devlaeminck, program director of Community of Hope, stands at the entrance of the homeless shelter that she runs.We’ve been critical of the city’s response to the local housing crisis, so we want to be sure to give a shout-out to Commissioner Dan Saltzman for getting it right last week.


First, some background: In early March, Portland Tribune reporter Jim Redden wrote about Community of Hope, a small faith-based organization wanting to double the size of its 15-bed homeless shelter, but struggling with how to pay for city fees and construction requirements totaling more than $20,000.

Following that story, the North Portland church coalition learned of a city-sponsored program that waives some fees and system development charges to encourage the construction of affordable housing, including new shelters. The program recently was used to reduce costs for a nonprofit shelter serving women and children in East Portland.

It seemed like a perfect solution — and just the kind of partnership Mayor Charlie Hales has been calling for since the city declared a Housing State of Emergency in October.

But on March 17, church leaders’ hope turned to despair after getting a letter from Portland Housing Bureau program coordinator Dory Van Bockel.

“After reviewing the application materials submitted, PHB is unable to approve SDC exemptions of the project due to the shelter’s religious-based services and programming,” Van Bockel wrote.

Saltzman, however, was having none of that.

Separating church and state

“We’re in a housing emergency, and we need more shelter beds,” Saltzman told the Tribune editorial board earlier this week.

After huddling with city attorneys, Saltzman, who oversees the housing bureau, reversed the decision on March 21.

Like Saltzman, we agree that local governments must be careful not to violate the Oregon Constitution’s separation between church and state.

Civil libertarians we talked to say that avoiding constitutional problems is pretty straightforward for religious organizations wanting government help with their shelters. First, don’t discriminate against the people you’re serving. If your service is available for couples, then let in all couples, not just married heterosexual couples. Second, you can offer your guests the chance to learn of your religious beliefs, but you can’t force it on them. So an invite to the Sunday service is fine; making it a condition of getting a bed is not — if you want government support for the shelter.

There already are numerous examples where the city has funded homeless and affordable housing projects by other religious organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Union Gospel Mission and Catholic Charities.

Faith-based groups can help

Rather than putting up financial barriers to faith-based groups looking to house the homeless, the city should be helping more of them open their doors.

Saltzman, for one, is ready to do so. That’s why he is drafting proposed code changes that will make it clear that groups like Community of Hope can work with the city to curb homelessness.

And it’s why he’s advocating for a single countywide agency to take the lead on homelessness, so that faith-based groups (and others) will get a clear and consistent message, regardless of where they are located, when they ask questions.

In the meantime, he’s prepared to overrule the housing bureau again should he need to.

“If another proposal comes before me and they’re achieving a goal that we share,” he said, “then I will likely do the same.”

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