About 350 homeless people can be found in the Old Town/Chinatown area on any given night, according to city and county officials.
That's a lot compared to the rest of the city, and this has historically been the landscape of Old Town/Chinatown — at least since the 1970s and 1980s, with little improvement.
Officials contend there continues to be a need there despite a heavy concentration of shelter and services already.
That was part of their message to a room full of concerned and unsatisfied area business owners and community members who attended one of two forums hosted by the Old Town China Town Community Association on Sept. 6 about the opening of a new 200-bed, 24-hour three-story homeless shelter at 320 N.W. Hoyt St. It would be the largest in the district.
Business owners for decades have been dealing with homelessness in the area, some threatening to move their operations elsewhere, criticizing that more services threaten area tourism and only add to already-high level of crime. Some argue that continuing to concentrate services is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
According to portlandmaps.com, crime stats nearby the 320 N.W. Hoyt location between September 2016 and 2017 show 71 assaults, four forcible rapes, four sex offenses, 92 larceny charges, 65 drug law violations, 30 disorderly conduct charges and a slew of other vandalism, fraud, vehicle theft, trespassing and other crimes, several times above the city averages. Old Town/Chinatown has been called Portland's Skid Row.
A panel of city and county officials attended the forum to respond to concerns, including: Marc Jolin, the director of the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services; Christian Gaston, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury's policy director; Berk Nelson, senior adviser to Mayor Ted Wheeler; and Kelli Sheffer, Portland Police Bureau Commander for the Central Precinct.
Jolin emphasized that the city is still in a housing crisis, officially declared in October 2015.
"We have too many people sleeping outside and in our shelters, they're languishing there. How do we start to get folks moving back to permanent decent housing they can afford, at a higher rate?" Jolin passionately told the group. "And then being realistic, that despite our best prevention efforts and housing placement efforts, we're going to continue to see people becoming homeless in our community."
The joint office signed a letter of intent to purchase the 29,100-square-foot building and adjoining vacant lot owned by the Seattle-based Alco Investment Company.
The building would need repairs to serve as a homeless shelter, likely not coming online for months. Officials haven't disclosed how much it would take to repair the building or details about the sale pending negotiations.
"We have people every day aging out of foster care, being discharged from mental health institutions, coming out of the corrections institutions in our community," Jolin said, adding that those people can face more obstacles than others in getting housing. "That means we're going to have to continue providing an emergency response."
It seems that placing the shelter there would go against previous agreements established between the city and the association on adding more homeless services in Old Town/Chinatown.
Commonly called the "No Net Gain" agreement, the "Clark-Shiels" agreement was developed between Don Clark, director of Central City Concern in the '80s, and Roger Shiels, who represented Old Town businesses.
When federal civil rights laws questioned the legality of the agreement, the city of Portland incorporated much of the agreement's provisions into city zoning amendments to prevent over-concentration and expansion of homeless services in Old Town/Chinatown.
But when former Mayor Charlie Hales declared the housing and homelessness state of emergency, it opened the door to city officials to bypass zoning code.
Originally, shelters in that area couldn't be within 1,300 feet of one another in Old Town/Chinatown per the agreement. That was reduced to 600 feet and, according to association members, shelters are overlapping that boundary.
Varying ideas at forums
Community members' views were all over the board at the forum, though skewing toward mostly against the new shelter and a sense of cynicism about city efforts, which was reflected in a vote after the meeting.
Harris Matarazzo, who owns a law firm that specializes in criminal defense of mentally ill people, is fed up with the concentration of services. His firm has been in Old Town/Chinatown since 1968 and he said it's one of the area's largest private employers.
"You talk about the needs in Old Town as we have a growing population. I think we have an inordinate amount of services down here, and I think that's a self-fulfilling prophecy to say that we have an inordinate need. When you keep adding services, that's where people are going to keep coming to get them," Matarazzo told officials. He added that political administrations come and go, and with it different enforcement practices.
Both Nelson and Sheffer said they've reinstated police foot patrols of the area in an attempt to mitigate crime, as well as making sure homeless folks aren't building structures.
Matarazzo said his female employees have been harassed.
"If this stuff keeps coming in, we're seriously looking at moving out of the neighborhood, and we've been here almost 50 years," he said.
On the flip side, a formerly homeless woman named Karen Hervey thinks the location is great for the new shelter, despite the fact that she would never go back to a shelter since she had horrible experiences in them, including getting scabies and lice.
She now receives $732 a month through Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and became homeless when her home was foreclosed after she started taking care of her elderly parents. Having moved to Portland two years ago from Oklahoma, she lives in a rent-controlled apartment unit in Old Town/Chinatown.
Hervey advocates for concentration of shelters because those who are mentally ill and disabled have an extremely tough time getting from one part of town to the other.
However, she criticized how the shelter plans to operate. Like most of the county's shelters, it would operate on a reservation basis. That means that, while the new shelter would be open 24/7, people can't just waltz in any time and expect a place to sleep. It takes an element of planning, including having to make a phone call or an in-person reservation at the Bud Clark Commons Day Center, operated by Transition Projects Inc.
"If you don't have a phone, or X amount of minutes on your Obama Phone (a phone loaded with minutes for low-income citizens), you're s—t out of luck," she said. "I've had people come up to me on the street ... and ask me for help. Unfortunately there's nothing open at that time of night because they're reservation shelters."
She's also concerned how long it will take to repair the warehouse to operate as a shelter.
"We need shelter and housing now," Hervey said.
The Old Town Chinatown Community Association plans to take a position on whether they agree with the siting there sometime next week.
As to whether the city will consider their position, "We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," said Denis Theriault, spokesman for the joint office.
Reporter, Portland Tribune
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