RV campsite plan stirs opposition (Jan. 2024)

News that 315 homeless people died in Multnomah County in the last reported year has heightened the debate over the City of Portland’s planned 150-unit facility for homeless people near North Columbia Boulevard.

The Multnomah County Health Department announcement also showed that deaths of people experiencing homelessness have increased an average of 29 percent per year since 2018.

Hank Smith, of Commissioner Dan Ryan's office, speaking about the RV campsite
Hank Smith, of Commissioner Dan Ryan’s office, speaking at the St. Johns Neighborhood meeting

“It’s a humanitarian crisis,” said Brandy Westerman, who oversees the city’s alternative shelter efforts. Yet Westerman’s view is not a universally held one for the facility that the city hopes to open later this winter. About one-third of the 70 people who attended a December town hall organized by St. Johns Neighborhood Association were vociferously opposed to the homeless encampment.

“I’m a fourth-generation St. Johns resident,” Debra J. Edwardson told the audience at the St. Johns Community Center that included two Portland TV news crews. “We think very differently here, we do things differently here, and we’ve been the armpit of Portland—being told what to do by people who at the end of their work go back to their homes in West Linn,” she said to the applause of other opponents.

Charlotte MacDonald, who lives about a mile from the site, claimed that it was environmentally unsafe. “We can’t place the most vulnerable people in our community on an already toxic site,” she said. Westerman responded, “We will follow all DEQ guidelines and want to hear from you on what you want.” 

Hecklers regularly interrupted pro-facility speakers and Mayor Ted Wheeler’s policy advisor Hank Smith, who led the Dec. 7 forum, extended the meeting an extra 30 minutes to allow everyone a chance to speak. 

One of the next questions revealed common ground amid the acrimony in the room. “Will those homeless people now living here, get the first opportunities to live in the facility?” asked Cesia Collier, to the applause of almost everyone in the room. Skyler Brock-Knapp, the Mayor’s senior policy advisor, answered, “We’ll prioritize what you’re seeing on the ground here and have teams to engage them” to come to the facility.

Urban Alchemy will manage the site for 130 parking spots for RVs and campers, and 20 pods for individuals at the 10505 N. Portland Rd. site, just north of the Portsmouth and St. Johns neighborhoods. It will provide shared kitchens, showers and laundry, plus on site mental health and addiction services. Residents will need to work on a personal housing, health and employment plan as a condition of their stay.

Urban Alchemy also manages the Peninsula Safe Village by the rail cut between N. Lombard St. and N. Willamette Blvd. One audience critic questioned the credentials of several speakers including Kirkpatrick Tyler, Urban Alchemy’s chief of government and community affairs. “This won’t be our first rodeo,” Tyler responded. We’re here in good faith and partnership, and we all need to build relationship.”

One of the closing comments came from Bryan Fletcher, who described himself as a St. Johns parent, who said, “There’s no perfect solution. It’s going to take all of us.”

Smith elaborated on the environmental issues with the North Peninsula Review. “If DEQ said it was simply impossible to have people reside at this property, we would not be able to use it,” he said. “But both our best city Bureau of Environmental Services experts and early conversations with DEQ leave us optimistic that we’ll be able to use common remediation techniques namely new fill and capping” that have been used at many city properties including most of the Pearl District condo buildings,” Smith explained.

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