Is tomorrow soon enough? R2DToo asks. Eyes on the prize, PDX leaders respond. Reflections on houseless camps & time
How would you describe yourselves, several members of the Right 2 Dream Too governance structure were asked as they posed for a photo, above.
“Family,” came the first answer.
It was a key moment, just a couple of days before the city announced a landmark decision to move the self-organized, extra-official homeless camp to land near the Moda Center.
I wrote this piece for the Los Angeles Times about it. But that’s just the news piece of the puzzle.
One of the deepest questions raised by R2DToo and the approaches of policymakers to the ongoing housing and homelessness crisis in Portland has to do with something at once very simple — and highly complex.
In other words: what’s your temporal frame? What period of time are you looking at with whatever solution to whatever problem you’re addressing?
Whatever the answer, and there’s no right or wrong here, there are tradeoffs and tough decisions.
Unsheltered houseless individuals are rarely able to see beyond today. Post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, which a significant percentage of unsheltered and sheltered homeless people experience, can cause a kind of narrowing of focus: tunnel vision. When you’re on the street, you can’t care much about anything beyond your next meal or where you’re going to sleep.
The city’s agreement with R2DToo calls for the camp to move in 60 days, then to vacate its new spot near the Moda Center within two years. These kinds of time frames are the stuff of city councils, attorney-negotiated agreements.
Then there’s the long term. At the opposite extreme of where’s-my-next-meal-coming-from survival mode is the privileged, decades-long focus of long-term investors and financial wizards.
In housing and homeless policy, the long term tends to be the focus of those who, for example, manage significant chunks of real estate, buildings that may need expensive repairs, or organizations that have annual budgets and employees who have their own rent or mortgages to pay. The city’s “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness” ended in 2014. “In 2004, ‘Home Again’ was launched as a 10-year Plan to End Homelessness,” the Portland Housing Bureau’s website reads. It was a city-county collaborative with key nonprofits who provide affordable housing and/or services.
These days, the city-county collaborative is called A Home for Everyone. It has taken important steps to house homeless veterans and increase shelter beds and affordable housing in recent months. But its view remains long.
R2DToo Board Member Brad Gibson, Cofounder Ibrahim Mubarak, Board Chair Sarah Chandler and others in the nonprofit group’s governance structure say what makes it so successful is that it’s focused on providing safe sleep for anyone and everyone.
No wait list. No turning people away for having a dog, or not being married, or because they need to sleep during daylight hours.
“There’s a thing that [Mayor Ted] Wheeler doesn’t get about our model,” says Gibson, 58, who has lived at R2DToo precursor Dignity Village. “Our model can go into a tiny house situation. But still we have that other [“overnighter”] aspect. If we took over [Argyle Village, a planned tiny house community in] Kenton, we’d still have overnighters.
“You just become homeless, you go to Kenton or a tiny house village, you’re going to be on a waitlist, they’ll put you back out on the street.
“A lot of people don’t get that. And that’s the thing about our two-tier model. All it needs is land. If you want to provide better looking housing, that’s great. It doesn’t have to be in tents, it doesn’t have to be in cardboard, it’s still the same model, but it will work.”
We got to keep our eyes on the prize, advocates for permanent housing respond. Mayoral spokesman Michael Cox and Portland Business Alliance CEO Sandra McDonough say the focus has to be on getting people back “inside,” in McDonough’s words — “back into the full societal fold,” in Cox’s.
“The goal needs to be permanent housing,” McDonough says.
There are unacceptable tradeoffs when self-organized homeless camps form, advocates for permanent housing say. One of those is breaking laws.
“We need to be thoughtful and flexible and creative in how we find places for people to sleep, but we also need to do things that are lawful and within zoning code,” McDonough says.
Permanent housing advocates also say city sanitation can suffer when homeless camps spring up on every corner, or under every bridge.
McDonough’s PBA operates “Clean and Safe,” which provides security and sanitation services for a 213-block district in central downtown. Part of that is a program run by Central City Concern to do cleaning in downtown, she says, “and they’re all formerly homeless. This is their employment. A lot of my members end up hiring them, it’s frankly my favorite program.”
McDonough says the group cleans up under bridges and in places where homeless campers have been — and lately it’s been far from pretty.
“This last year we’ve seen an incredible amount of trash that’s being picked up, needles, biohazards, which is a euphemism for human waste,” McDonough says. “So we see that first-hand, when we have had to clean up camps. It’s like multiple truckloads sometimes.”
We go back to the premise that people should be sleeping inside.”
McDonough didn’t say that R2DToo, which has trash service and portapotties, is unsanitary. But her point is that street camping — of which R2DToo is the most high-profile — carries tradeoffs.
Another way to put it: when your focus is trying to stay alive today, are you really going to worry about throwing some trash on the sidewalk, or peeing in the bushes?
At the February A Home For Everyone Executive Committee meeting, Mayor Wheeler used a temporal rationale for nixing the proposed relocation site of Commissioner Amanda Fritz to SW Naito Parkway.
“I didn’t support [Fritz’s plan] because it’s another temporary solution,” Wheeler said to the assembled officials. “It’s a band-aid.”
Mayor Wheeler should be given the time to sort out the tough policy choices our housing and homeless crisis brings, says the director of Street Roots, Israel Bayer. In a recent opinion article for the Portland Tribune called “Let’s Give The Mayor a Chance,” Bayer argues eloquently for giving Wheeler time and space to put his plans into action.
Still, Bayer said when asked about R2DToo, we also have to focus on the street-level realities. Now.
“People that think that tent cities aren’t adequate spaces aren’t understanding the reality that people are facing with life on the streets,” Bayer said. He then compared modern camps to the Depression-era Hoovervilles.
“We’ll look back on history today and say, ‘how did life get to be like that?’ The harsh reality is we don’t have the housing stock.”
With 111 people moving to Portland a day, a figure R2DToo cofounder Mubarak and others cite, when will we?
Will we ever?
San Jose, Calif. Councilman Tam Nguyen says he was inspired to spend a night getting some safe sleep of his own at R2DToo because he believes in the group’s unique commitment to helping people in the here and now. “If you look into their eyes, you would see how motivated they are,” Nguyen says. “That’s the human side of it.”
“While I accept the argument that this is not a permanent solution to the goal of homeless housing, I see that this type of encampments are only temporary measure to help release the huge pressure of the homeless people intruding into the neighborhood homes, streets, parks, and curbsides, while they wait for permanent housings that come very few and far in between.”
Former Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy says she learned of R2DToo during a trip to visit Dignity Village. What Piercy and others from Eugene found most worthy about R2DToo was more or less the same thing that R2DToo cofounder Ibrahim Mubarak says people around the country want to know more about: providing a safe sleeping place.
“The Right to Dream folks did come and participate in some of that and met with me about their place to sleep concept,” Piercy writes. “We chose a different path but learned a lot from them. With the help of the couple who built the huts (Community Supported Shelters), the Rest Stop concept was put in place. The original concept was dusk to dawn safe sleeping spot. This would hold no more than 15, would be fenced, would have tents or huts, be neat and orderly, and would be overseen and self run.”
Mubarak, who is working with Oregon Harbor of Hope, Homer Williams, Dike Dame and Don Mazziotti’s nonprofit, says he travels often to speak about the lessons learned from Dignity Village and Right 2 Dream Too, including to San Francisco, Denver, Seattle, Tucson, Phoenix, Michigan, Minneapolis, Mississippi, Illinois.
“First it was just the poor people, grassroots,” Mubarak says. “Now I’m meeting with city and state organizations, developers and neighborhood associations of the middle class.”
Mayoral spokesman Michael Cox says that while the city is taking some lessons learned from the approach, self-governed camps such as R2DToo are not part of Mayor Wheeler’s plan to address housing and homelessness. (“Low barrier” shelters are, however.)
What’s more, Cox says that insofar as camps like R2DToo make it easier for people to live on the street, they’re actually keeping people on the street.
“It’s a permanent, self-governed homeless camp, and that’s I think distinct from the mayor’s approach to addressing this issue, which is about helping folks who are addressing homelessness get off the streets.”
In other words, better to spend today getting into a shelter, seeking permanent housing, or building a tiny house, than crashing in a safe sleeping area. One apparent pillar of Wheeler’s incipient approach to the metro area’s housing and homeless crisis is tiny houses, such as the pioneering community of tiny houses, Argyle Village, planned for the Kenton neighborhood.
“[Mayor Wheeler] is swapping us for the tiny house model,” says Gibson, 58.
A tiny house only takes 120 hours to build, tinyhousecommunity.com has it.
But that’s only if you have the minimum $1200 for the materials, the tools, and the know-how.
Tents and DIY shanties seen at several local homeless camps, on the other hand, may be seen as too impermanent, or unsightly.
“I think that the business alliance and associations and stuff have a really hard time with this idea of tents,” says R2DToo board member and spokeswoman Trillium Shannon. “In fact a lot of people have this block about tents.”
“Sometimes you have to use the materials you have that are at hand.”
What are the biggest concerns about the R2DToo model, we asked Homer Williams of Oregon Harbor of Hope?
“[Detractors] think, frankly, this is not really, we can do better than having people live in tents,” Homer Williams says. “They need showers, they need plumbing.”
“You don’t need to be in camps like that,” Williams added. “They’re frankly unhealthy.”
Certainly, there are advantages to traditional brick-and-mortar structures.
“The thing I was actually most excited about was a flushing toilet,” says Sarah Chandler, 30, R2DToo board chair, about the decision she and her husband Jerry (pictured, at top) made to move back in with family. It was a decision that didn’t pan out, she says.
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly’s Policy Director Jamey Duhamel says Eudaly’s office is working closely with the Overlook neighborhood and Hazelnut Grove, another self-governed homeless community there that some have said borrows from the R2DToo approach.
“While we recognize that neighborhoods and surrounding neighbors aren’t always supportive of these camps, we generally feel that as long as they’re safe, stable places to live that it’s incumbent on us not to destabilize them,” Duhamel says.
Commissioner Fritz says there are more people sleeping outside in Portland tonight than in her entire home country, England. Models like R2DToo offer a “bridge” for unsheltered houseless people to stay connected, or reconnect, until they’re ready to take the next step, she says.
Ultimately, perhaps, the reason we ought to consider including the R2DToos and Hazelnut Groves in policy and funding modeling is that even with the new housing bond here in Portland, federal funding for traditional shelters and affordable or subsidized housing is facing serious cuts.
This lack of funds, says Executive Director Paul Boden of R2DToo partner Western Regional Advocacy Program, is hardly new.
“If we’ve learned anything from all of the homeless plans that cities have put forward,” Boden says, “we better be also talking about what we’re going to do in the mean time.”