Foster Road homeless shelter plan raises curiosity and fear
When leaders of Multnomah County and the City of Portland convened a meeting on December 18 to introduce the plan of a new Multnomah County homeless shelter on to Foster Road, organizers said they had no idea how many people would attend.
As Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury walked up to the venue – the SEIU Local 503 building, at 6401 S.E. Foster Road – she framed the meeting for THE BEE, saying "This is our first opportunity to talk to the community about we're considering, and to hear their feedback about how we can make this a mutually beneficial location."
Asked about the location of the proposed shelter, 6144 S.E. Foster Road, in the former "Winly Cash & Carry" storefront, Kafoury replied, "As you know, we've sited many shelters recently; we've heard from the community that they do not want people sleeping on the streets, and feel compassionate about having people sleeping indoors at night.
"We agree; and we've put shelters all around our community," Kafoury continued. "Instead of concentrating shelters in downtown Portland, as they have traditionally been, and spreading them around the community – where people live, work, and have their friends and family – it's a place-based way to get people who are experiencing homelessness integrated back into the community."
Outgoing Foster Area Business Association (FABA) President Matthew Micetic, owner of Red Castle Games, and also a brand-new property owner in the area, said – speaking only for himself, he pointed out: "I think there can be a knee-jerk reaction of 'not wanting this in my backyard' – this shelter will be located between my store's current location and its future location.
"If this can be a space where people can sleep, instead of 'camping' in front of businesses, on sidewalks or backyards, it could be a positive," Micetic mused. "I'm trying to take a pragmatic approach, trying to see what if the whole story this coming out of this, and learn what the game plan is."
Eric Furlong co-chair of the Foster-Powell Neighborhood Association (FPNA) and a resident of the neighborhood – living near the corner of S.E. 60th and Francis Street – commented that FPNA had not yet taken a position on the shelter. "Speaking for myself, my personal feelings are that I feel the homeless situation needs to have solutions. I am open to all solutions that could work for all the stakeholders involved."
The meeting room quickly filled, leaving standing room only. For public safety concerns, the outside entry doors were locked after the legal occupancy capacity for the hall had been reached.
As the meeting began, and government officials introduced themselves, Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said, "I know there'll be a lot of questions here tonight; we're here to talk about what this shelter might look like, and how it meets the community's needs."
She pointed out that she and her family live near the "Family Shelter" on S.E. Stark Street, and the Hansen Shelter on N.E. Glisan Street. "We do have homeless problems and we're working on ways to solve them; the ultimate goal is finding permanent housing for people."
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler began his remarks with, "Let's start with the obvious; I think that everyone agrees we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands here in Portland."
Wheeler said that he hears requests for his help to "get people who are living on the streets off, and help them stay off" – and, with the added request, "Whatever you and your colleagues do, make sure that what you do is compassionate, in terms of the approach."
With that, the meeting was opened to questions and comments from attendees. Many forcefully stated opinions and concerns of how opening a shelter in the area would reduce the quality of life in the community.
Alex Krebs, of Tango Berretín, asked if disturbances within 500 feet of the shelter would be prevented or abated.
"Research has led me believe that many times, within 500 feet of the shelter, there is an increase in disturbances, not necessarily crime, but disturbances," Kreb said. "My business is 350 feet away [from the proposed shelter site], and the idea of coming into my business and hose down urine off the sidewalk is something I don't want. . . How we make sure it's clean and safe within the vicinity of the shelter?"
Chair Kafoury was repeatedly shouted down as she attempted to reply to this, and other questions posed.
"There are a lot of decisions that have yet to be made," Kafoury said, before a chorus of loud remarks again caused her to stop.
Joint Office of Homeless Services director Marc Jolin took the microphone and said, "The reason this meeting is important is to get clarity around this shelter. . . At the proposed Foster Road shelter, Jolin explained, lodgers with reserved space come in, store their belongings, take a shower, have an access to services that they need to move out a shelter and back into permanent housing.
"This is an opportunity for people to rebuild their lives, and they take that opportunity seriously," Jolin said. "We're trying to create a shelter to address the very specific concerns you have about impacting neighborhood livability. We will absolutely work with you between now, and when it opens in the fall, with a public safety plan, public safety partners, and the neighbors, and other stakeholders."
A heckler in the audience shouted, "You don't care at all!" Jolin replied, "Yes, we do care, that's why we're doing it in this way."
Mason Layman of Boro Art Supply, located in the large Watershed Building just north of the Willamette Shelter was next to testify. "Since the shelter opened, there people stealing our property, and our customers' property," Layman said, adding that many businesses and a trade school rent space in the building. He insisted that garbage and needle problems arise from proximity to the shelter; but Westmoreland residents living near that shelter firmly dispute his charges.
In a follow up telephone interview, THE BEE asked Layman if it was possible to differentiate between homeless people coming up to the area from the Oaks Bottom Natural Refuge area and the by-reservation current residents of the Willamette Shelter.
"It's a mixture; looking out my window, I see tents in the bushes right now," Layman replied.
What motivated our question was that the by-reservation-only residents of the shelter are provided with 24/7 accommodations, including clean sleeping quarters, dining, laundry and garbage service, showers, as well as job and Internet services, and assistance in finding permanent residences – so there should be no need for any shelter resident to camp outside, or to trash the area nearby. And, since homeless without reservations are not admitted, there is no reason for those without reservations to be drawn to that shelter, either.
When Mayor Wheeler started to respond to a question and was shouted down, he said, "If you don't want to hear me, I don't want to take your time." He later related how, in less than a year in office, he's "put resources" toward more police patrols, park rangers, removing abandoned RVs, and picking up biohazards such as needles, as well as graffiti abatement. "So, I understand the police and livability thing; my [city] budget [proposal] reflects my desire ... to go back to a full community policing model, which means foot patrols," Wheeler said.
Before wrapping up the frequently disrupted meeting, Kafoury again said that the officials present had been there to listen, and to be responsive, to the concerns of those present.At a follow-up meeting of the Foster Powell Neighborhood Association in early January, two residents who live within four blocks of the Willamette Shelter in Westmoreland, and who are both on the Board of the SMILE neighborhood association – Tim DuBois and Eric Norberg, there by invitation – told those present that there had been no problems arising from the presence of the shelter for nearby residents, in its first year of operation.Both that shelter and the planned one on Foster Road are owned by Multnomah County, and operated by the local nonprofit organization "Transition Projects".