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Sears armory option for homeless shelter

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: KELSEY O'HALLORAN - Neighbors wonder whether the Jerome F. Sears Army Reserve Center on Southwest Multnomah Boulevard could be one of the sites the Mayor Charlie Hales is considering converting into a homeless shelter.A decommissioned Army Reserve Center on Southwest Multnomah Boulevard has become a source of local chatter in the past two weeks, as some neighbors wonder whether the vacant building is one of the city-owned sites Mayor Charlie Hales is considering converting into a homeless shelter.

Hales announced Sept. 23 that he wants to declare a housing state of emergency for Portland’s homeless population. The City Council is slated to decide Wednesday whether to call for a state of emergency, which could allow the city to convert some city-owned buildings into shelters and waive zoning codes for a faster process, according to a release from the mayor’s office.

“This declaration will allow us to work with our partners, Multnomah County, Home Forward, the state of Oregon and nonprofits to move quickly on several fronts,” Hales said in a news release.

While city officials say they’re still planning to turn the decomissioned Sgt. Jerome F. Sears Army Reserve Center into the main emergency response center for the west side of Portland, Multnomah neighbors wonder whether the building would be converted into a shelter under a housing state of emergency. The neighborhood had supported the plan for an emergency response center, which could hold equipment and a fueling station for city transportation vehicles to be used in the event of a natural disaster.

The day before making his announcement, Hales led Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury on a tour through the Army Reserve Center, located at 2730 S.W. Multnomah Blvd., according to county spokesman David Austin.

Sara Hottman, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said via email that the city is exploring “options for temporary uses in the building,” but hasn’t made a decision yet.

“Once some potential uses are identified, we’ll start a dialogue with the community,” Hottman says.

She didn’t confirm whether the city is considering the building as a shelter site, and didn’t identify other potential shelter sites.

Hales and other city and county leaders have since pledged to contribute $30 million toward affordable housing and homeless aid efforts.

“For too long, I think we’ve stayed rooted in a realization that these problems can’t be solved overnight and some of them can’t be. But I want us to recognize that there are some things that we can move quickly on,” Hales said at a news conference Sept. 30.

He says the city’s portion of the money will come from a plentiful general fund, a possible home demolition tax, and urban renewal funds. Much of the money may not be available until the start of the next fiscal year, which begins in July 2016.

Neighbors speculate

A Sept. 24 article in The Portland Mercury, which claims that Hales and Kafoury were indeed scoping out potential shelter sites when they visited the Army Reserve Center, generated more than 50 comments on the Multnomah Village Facebook page in the week after Maplewood resident James Nobles posted the story’s link.

The 24,810-square-foot building was acquired by the city in 2012 to be used as the west-side emergency response center, though the building isn’t compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Bureau of Emergency Management spokesman Dan Douthit says it’s “a ways out before it will be used.”

While some neighbors responded with enthusiasm for the potential use as a shelter, some expressed concerns that a shelter could draw more criminal activity to the quiet area.

Others, like Multnomah Neighborhood Association land-use chairman James Peterson, wondered what the shelter’s users would do in the neighborhood during the day, since Southwest doesn’t have the same concentration of resources and service agencies as the downtown area does.

If Hales really is considering converting the Army Reserve Center into a shelter, Peterson says he thinks it’s little more than a quick response to Ted Wheeler entering the 2016 mayoral race.

He points to the Bureau of Emergency Management’s 2015-16 budget request, submitted Feb. 2, which sought $897,132 for accessibility upgrades at the center.

“Until quite recently ... they were planning to make it an emergency response center for the west side,” he says. “I think it’s all about politics.”

In hopes of finding out, Peterson — on behalf of the neighborhood association — requested Sept. 25 that the mayor’s office provide “all documentation and correspondence” regarding the idea of converting the Army Reserve Center into a homeless shelter and discontinuing it as an emergency response center. At press time, Peterson hadn’t received a response from the city.

Nobles, who chairs the Southwest Neighborhoods Inc. Public Safety Committee, also says the shelter idea seemed politically motivated, but he’s supportive of it nonetheless.

“Sometimes that’s what it takes to get things done on these sort of issues,” he says. “(The Army Reserve Center) is just sitting there unused and empty now, so any positive use is a good thing.”

As for neighborhood safety, Nobles says he would have “no more concern (about a shelter) than I have about the people who drive 40 miles per hour through the 20 miles-per-hour zone in the Village.” He pointed out that local churches and agencies such as Neighborhood House likely could help provide daytime resources for people staying at a shelter.

‘One site left’ in Southwest

Before the Sgt. Jerome F. Sears Army Reserve Center was eyed for “temporary uses” or slated to become an emergency response center, Neighborhood House and Community Partners for Affordable Housing had set their sights on turning the 3.6-acre lot into an affordable housing site.

Back in July 2008, the City Council voted unanimously to recommend that the groups be allowed to develop more than 100 units of mixed-income housing at the Army Reserve Center site.

But the project never took off, as Neighborhood House Executive Director Rick Nitti says then-Mayor Sam Adams didn’t support the proposal.

“The recession hit, and availability of tax funds and other credits the city would use to fund it had dried up,” Nitti says. “We were very disappointed.”

Nitti says he might be interesting in exploring the idea of setting up a shelter and mixed-income housing complex there.

“In Southwest Portland, this is the one site you have left where you could do that,” he says, since the large lot would provide ample living and outdoor space for families, and the location would help spread out the downtown area’s “overconcentrated” homeless community.

Neighborhood House’s associate director Peggy Norman says a shelter could be met with even more neighborhood resistance than their housing plan drew in 2008.

While she recalls that the neighborhood was largely supportive of her team’s proposal, the neighbors closest to the site worried that mixed-income housing residents might become regulars at nearby nightclubs, or leave syringes and other paraphernalia in the streets.

But Norman, who lives in Multnomah Village, says over the years she’s often seen people sleeping in cars or concealed outdoor spaces within a few blocks of her house.

For people experiencing homelessness in Southwest, she says, the Army Reserve Center could provide needed shelter, and Neighborhood House could help people get back on their feet with its emergency food pantry and rent assistance programs.

“We could help people while they’re there,” she says, “but we could also help them move beyond shelter.”

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