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Our Opinion: Find a different site for the homeless


Portland would be wise to emulate San Antonio, Texas, as this city looks for better ways to deal with homelessness.

For that reason, local residents should be grateful to developers Homer Williams and Dike Dame for their proposal for Portland to build a San Antonio-style homeless service center near downtown. Their concept is promising, but their chosen site — 14 acres of industrial land along the Willamette River off Northwest Front Street — is problematic at best. The developers and city officials should expand their range of vision to include other possible locations for a one-stop, full-service homeless facility.

A Portland version of the Haven for Hope — as the 37-acre San Antonio campus is called — would address many needs within the homeless population. Hundreds of leaders from cities around the nation have visited the Haven for Hope to see how a large campus can offer a continuum of shelter, temporary housing and direct services to the homeless. By most accounts, the Haven for Hope is highly successful and has improved outcomes for homeless individuals and families.

Such a campus, and all of its necessary partnerships and facilities, would take years to develop. Williams and Dame hope to raise $100 million from both private and public sources to get the project built — although Williams told the Oregonian newspaper he wouldn’t be the developer.

The Texas-size thinking behind Williams’ and Dame’s big idea is needed in Portland, which has struggled for decades with intractable issues surrounding homelessness. Some progress is being made as the city and Multnomah County have committed $30 million for shelters, housing and homeless services. However, Mayor Charlie Hales’ decision to allow homeless camps throughout the city has exacerbated the negative impact that unsightly tent camping has on Portland’s livability.

So a grand solution that fully engages the business community, government and the nonprofit sector would be a welcome escalation in the battle against homelessness. However, the waterfront site isn’t a practical option.

The property, which was acquired by the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services as a staging area for the Big Pipe project, is zoned for industrial use — not for a homeless service center. Portland has a well-documented shortage of industrial property. Taking 14 prime acres out of the city’s industrial land inventory would make that shortage worse.

Even if we thought it was worthwhile to give up 14 acres of industrial land, the zoning for the property isn’t easily changed. Both the city’s comprehensive plan and the zoning code would have to be amended. Those decisions would be subject to appeal to the state and the courts, where the question of whether Portland has set aside sufficient industrial land for future development would be paramount.

Additionally, there is the matter of fairness to Portlanders who pay for sewer service provided by the Bureau of Environmental Services. If the property is sold, as currently planned, in an auction to industrial developers, it will bring in at least $10 million — and likely more — to help offset future sewer rate increases.

Portland has a severe problem with homelessness. It has a related difficulty with general affordability of housing. One solution to the affordability issue is better jobs — the type of living-wage employment that comes with proper development of an industrial site.

As the concept for a large homeless center gets debated in the community, the question of location must be explored more thoroughly. Proponents of a Portland Haven for Hope must look for sites that can accommodate a sizable campus — but not at the expense of future jobs that would allow families to have homes of their own.