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City willing to explore homeless crisis options

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TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Venus, a homeless woman, tucks Orchid, a Chihuahua, away from the cold by her tent along Northwest Irving Street directly across Bud Clark Commons Homeless Center.Unlike Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Mayor Charlie Hales is not opposed to opening the Wapato Jail in North Portland for homeless services.

Hales is not pushing for it, either, but says the county needs to consider all of its options as it works with the city to solve the homeless crisis.

“We’re making stone soup here, and everyone needs to bring what they can to the table,” Hales told the Portland Tribune editorial board last week.

The jail was completed in 2004 for $58 million but never opened. Kafoury has rejected the idea of opening it for homeless services, citing financial, transportation and humanitarian issues.

According to Hales, the inability of city and county homeless programs to reduce the number of people living on the streets in recent years calls for new approaches to the problem. He and Kafoury have pledged $30 million for shelters and new affordable housing projects, with Hales committing $20 million and Kafoury promising $10 million.

Hales says the renewed commitment to reducing homelessness is making progress. For example, he notes the city soon will open a new emergency shelter for up to 100 men in the Washington Center building at Southwest Fourth Avenue and Washington Street. Building owner Barry Menashe is donating the use of the building to the city for 30 to 60 days and perhaps longer while it is being sold.

Menashe says his decision to allow the city to use the building as a homeless shelter is both personal and professional. He knows the toll homelessness can take on a family first-hand. A brother and sister both died in their 50s after periods of living on Portland streets. But as a downtown property owner, he also knows homeless people sleeping in doorways can hurt business.

“There’s a human side and a business side. I see the homeless downtown and have an empty building, so I decided to offer it to the city.”

The city previously opened a six-month, 150-bed shelter for women and couples in the former Jerome Sears Army Reserve Center in Southwest Portland in November. Multnomah County expects to open a permanent 130-bed shelter for women and children at the site of a former strip club at Southeast 160th and Powell in February.

But perhaps the most visible response to homelessness is a new unwillingness by the city to sweep homeless camps unless they present a public health or safety threat.

“You can’t tell campers they have to move, but not tell them where they can go. If crimes are happening there, then we will shut them down. But if they are just messy, we should provide services to help clean them up,” Hales said.

The shift has been most controversial so far in North Portland, where the Hazelnut Grove homeless camp has been allowed to stay on a slice of city-owned land above North Greeley Avenue, despite complaints from nearby residents and the Overlook Neighborhood Association. The city is working to remove campers on adjoining Oregon Department of Transportation property, and installed a fence last week to designate where it will continue allowing camping to occur in the future.

According to Hales, the city will be less tolerant about camping once enough shelter, transitional housing and affordable housing is created that campers have somewhere to go. He does not expect that to happen for another five years, however.