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Old Town camp defiant as city bureau fines pile up

Michael Wright ready to fight for Right 2 Dream Too
by: Nick Fochtman Right 2 Dream Too residents Amber Dunks (left) and Carey White play with the site's unofficial mascot, Paige. City fines are piling up against the homeless encampment on Northwest Fourth Avenue and Burnside Street.

Michael Wright knows he's caught in the middle, and that he sort of asked for it.

Wright, co-owner of the property next to the Chinatown Gate on West Burnside Street, is landlord, in a sense, to the Right 2 Dream Too encampment for homeless men and women.

The city says the camp is illegal, and since January has levied fines against the group running the campsite. As of last week, the fines had reached $2,800. Not one penny has been paid.

Right 2 Dream Too isn't liable for the fines, now levied at about $1,200 a month and potentially going much higher. Wright and co-owner Dan Cossette are responsible for the fines, which are issued as liens against the property.

Right 2 Dream Too leaders say they want to challenge the city's decision to declare their encampment illegal and that money to pay the fines would come from the funds they use for food.

Wright says he wants to support the homeless, but he doesn't know how long he can let the campers stay when in the end, he and Cossette are the two who may have to pay, and may face more drastic action by the city if Right 2 Dream Too stays in place.

City officials admit they may have to do something to make the homeless campsite disappear.

All this falls against a complicated political backdrop that includes the Feb. 22 shooting of two homeless men sleeping beneath the east end of the Morrison Bridge.

In January, when the fines started, a Right 2 Dream Too spokesman said the nonprofit would pay at least the initial amount. But Ibrahim Mubarak, a co-founder of Right 2 Dream Too, says his organization is already paying for electricity, food and servicing of the portable toilet on site, and that is taking up most of the group's funds.

"We don't have the money to pay those fines," Mubarak says.

Mubarak hopes to rally community support so the city backs off on the fines. Among his rallying points is the recent, unsolved shooting beneath the Morrison Bridge. Mubarak says places like the Right 2 Dream Too encampment could offer a safe alternative for the homeless.

Since it opened, there have been no police calls to Right 2 Dream Too. The group strictly enforces rules against violence, drugs and alcohol use at the site.

"This is something that the public is unaware of, that is happening constantly," Mubarak says. "People are being abused, and crimes are committed against the houseless community, and nothing is being done about it."

Possible city hearing

Mubarak also says the city's Bureau of Development Services has erred in requiring Right 2 Dream Too to meet the requirements of a recreational campground. City officials insist that those requirements, usually enforced for rural sites, are the most applicable rules they can find for a situation not directly addressed in city code: a homeless campsite on property zoned for commercial use in the city.

Matt Grumm, policy manager for City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Bureau of Development Services, says the fines are not aimed at the homeless people living at Right 2 Dream Too.

"The property owner is being fined," Grumm says. "Right 2 Dream Too is not being fined. They're not supposed to be paying the fines."

Grumm says if the campsite remains and the fines aren't paid, the city might consider requesting a hearing at which it could ask for larger monthly fines or other action that could remove the tents.

'Fighting for them'

The pressure is on property owner Wright. He says Right 2 Dream Too leaders have told him they hope to get an injunction against the city levying fines.

"It sounds a little wistful to me," Wright says.

Wright says his contract with Right 2 Dream Too states that his property will be unencumbered from liens. In return, he is allowing Right 2 Dream Too to stay at no cost. Now, he sees a different scenario evolving.

"Eventually, it will probably be money out of my pocket," Wright says. "This has taken on a life of its own with me."

Initially, Wright had his "own agenda" when he leased his property to Right 2 Dream Too. Wright, who used to operate Cindy's Adult Bookstore at the site before the city had it closed for code violations, has battled the city for years because of his property. Last summer, he rented space to two food carts before the city declared the site illegal for food carts and began issuing fines.

But Wright says the ongoing battle with Right 2 Dream Too has morphed into something different for him.

"It kind of makes me feel good about it, and now I feel like fighting for them," he says. "It's crazy."

But even Wright is unsure how long he will sustain that fight, and how much in liens against his property he is willing to incur.

"I can't go on forever with it, but I'll shoot the dice a little," Wright says.