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As the high-tech homeless shelter nears completion, developer Don Mazziotti reflects on four years' work

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Don Mazziotti, the Managing Director of Orgon Harbor of Hope, standing in front of the nearly complete River District Navigation Center which will process and shelter up to 100 homeless men for up to 90 days at a time.

Everyone has an opinion of how the homeless got where they are and how the "problem" can be fixed.

The latest project to make it past the fantasy stage and into concrete and steel is by Oregon Harbor of Hope. The curved, green River District Navigation Center popped up in April under the west end of the Broadway Bridge, on vacant land owned by Prosper Portland.

According to Don Mazziotti, Oregon Harbor of Hope's Managing Director, the target is a certificate of occupancy by July 1 and to be operating by August 1.

"There'll be no loitering, no camps around it," he said on a recent hard-hat tour. "There will be one point of entry, on Naito, and you'll need a reservation, which can't be made on site. If you don't have a key card, you can't enter."

He adds, "It's a temporary facility and a temporary stay. Ideally, a guest at the center would stay no more than 90 days, so you can turn the facility over. We can serve maybe 300 people a year."

Asked who will come here, and if they are people who would otherwise be in shelters, Mazziotti has a clear but broad definition.

"For the most part these are people who are on the street and are ready to come into an enclosed space."

When the entrance on Northwest Naito Street is glazed, lit and has its security cameras installed, it will look even more permanent. The front third of the 9,000-square-foot building will have intake areas where guests will be entered in a database — the better to track their status and needs. They will see "acute care but not primary care" medics and social workers. The middle area will have offices and the rear third will have bunk beds for 110 males. The land around it will be fully landscaped and there will be a patio, presumably welcoming to smokers since the building is strictly no smoking.

Sprung steel

Harbor of Hope has a five-year lease on the land, but the structure itself is designed to last at least 25. It's a 21st Century Quonset hut, although it is much more customizable and needs skilled labor to assemble it. Its inner and outer walls are made of vinyl stretched tight over a steel frame. There is insulation, full plumbing and power, and it all sits on a one-foot-thick concrete pad. (Such sprung structures are already in use for a church in Tigard, at Intel for research and at PDX airport for storage.)

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The view looking east from the west end of the Broadway Bridge. The River City Navigation Center will be surrounded by grass and benches, to make it attractive to residents or guests  and to the neighbors. A reservation system with swipe cards and a secured entrance on Naito is designed to prevent homeless people lining up or congregating on the street.

"It must be comfortable, and we want it to be attractive, and we want the neighbors to be half-way comfortable with it too," he says as he strides across the gravel.

Those neighbors include the Pearl District and Old Town Neighborhood Associations, and local developer Jim Winkler. Winkler owns undeveloped land, currently home to large green pipes, between the Food Innovation Center and the Navigation Center's hurricane fence. He also challenged the cleanup plan for the property which was approved by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, saying it was not stringent enough and could be a health hazard for anyone on site. Hence the foot-thick concrete pad, designed to prevent leaching of toxins upward. Mazziotti scoffs as he mentions the challenge, and notes that everything along the river is contaminated, and that the soil has "already been taken out to Hillsboro and burned or whatever they do with it."


Navigation centers exist in other forms, and in other cities, but this is the first of its kind in Portland. There are already groups offering service to the homeless, but the idea of a navigation center is to have those functions in one place: food, shelter, medical care, social services such as help with claiming benefits and finding affordable housing Homeless shelters often provide a meal, a shower and a bed, but send people away in the morning. Groups like the Northwest Pilot Project and Impact Northwest try to find them housing, but can't deal with their immediate needs.

The River District Navigation Center has the backing of developer Homer Williams (the South Waterfront, the Brewery Blocks) and Columbia Sportswear's Tim Boyle, who was so distressed by people camping in his downtown office's doorway he threated to move it out of the city.

Asked how he sells the idea to skeptics, Mazziotti says, "I tell them these are our people, this is our community. It's our responsibility to make it work.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Workers paint pipes inside the vinyl and steel structure, which cost $400,000 and has a life. Span of 25 years. With sprinklers and showers is fully plumbed in on a 12-inch concrete pad.

"If they say they're just bums and should get jobs, well, 20% of the homeless have jobs, maybe even more. But if you have an eviction record or a minor criminal record, like a marijuana charge, you might not be able to get a job. There's so many objections of one kind or another. The real hard-nosed business guys who say they are bums and they should just get jobs, we suggest take off your shoes and give us your wallet and come back in a week, and we'll see what condition you're in."

PDC roots

Mazziotti led the Portland Development Commission from 2001 to 2005 when city officials approved a South Waterfront redevelopment deal with Homer Williams. "I built that, he says," gesturing at the Food Innovation Center. He says the same of the police horse paddock and the Station Place parking structure. Of the latter he said, "People said, 'You're crazy'" because the Pearl District was still in its infancy. "Our guys were right."

In the alphabet soup of people trying to help the homeless in Portland, Mazziotti says Harbor of Hope has its niche.

"We do what nobody else is doing. Nobody's built a navigation center. Or Portland Street Medicine: no one was delivering on-street or in-camp services. The shower trucks and laundry trucks, no one is doing it."

Oregon Harbor of Hope is also sponsoring two box trucks that will provide on-the-spot cleanup for less-than-sanitary people. They will operate five days a week with stops scheduled at schools, churches, and encampments across the city.

The laundry truck has six washer-dryer stacks in it. The shower truck has six showers. Both trucks have barber's chairs. "It transforms people to have a shower if they haven't had one for six months, get a haircut, get cleaned up," he says.

The trucks have not really caught the public imagination, however. On GoFundMe 33 people have contributed $1,870 of the $300,000 goal in five months.

In any case, Mazziotti says they should hit the streets in the next 30 days. "We're testing them right now, they're beautiful pieces of equipment, beautiful. We're not trying to compete with anybody, we're trying to attack problems that need some response."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Don Mazziotti points out the insulation under the vinyl skin of the Navigation Center.

The practical approach comes from an impatience not just with the public sector but the private sector.

He says they are also working on a transitional housing concept, and a second navigation center for the east side to serve people in the many camps along I-84, Interstate and 82nd avenues.

"I don't want to name any place because it will scare people off, there will always be constant opposition to whatever it is we do, but it will be east side. If you look at the police maps of where the camps are you can see the northeast and southeast side they need something to help the people who are there. It's just a matter of whether the local leadership believes it is something that will help people get off their streets and on to something better, through a program of this kind."

Harbor of Hope had begun raising money to buy part of the city's 14-acre Terminal 1 site just downriver, but plans fell apart and it is now, Mazziotti notes with the irony of a man who drives one, a site for storing Mercedes Benz cars.

Spare change

Mazziotti puts in about 200 hours a month on Harbor of Hope, and is paid a nominal fee plus expenses.

"Because it's the first structure of its type in Portland, we faced many regulatory uncertainties. We had to figure it out. We had tremendous cooperation from the Mayor's office. Without their help and the governor's involvement it would never have happened. Would I do it again? Yes.

"Would we be able to do it for a lot less? Yes. We'd shy away from anything with contamination. That cost us 600 grand."

He jokes that this wasn't his passion project. He got roped into it by Homer Williams.

"Homer called me four years ago and said 'Would you like to be project manager for a large apartment project in Lents, 600 units?' I said sure, on a Friday. When I went in on Monday he said, 'I've decided not to do it. I want you to start a nonprofit for the homeless.' I said 'I don't know anything about that homeless thing.' He said 'I thought you were able and willing to work on tough problems?' So, I said 'Yes.'"

While he is Managing Director, the real estate merchant banker Tim Kemper is the project manager. There are no employees, just volunteers and consultants. Their address is a UPS Box on Northwest 13th Avenue. They meet in the Marriott Residence Inn in the Pearl, which is owned by Williams and Dame.

"We cut it real thin. We running deep, running fast and running cheap," says Mazziotti.

Org chart

Oregon Harbor of Hope was founded by Portland developer Homer Williams. Columbia Sportswear executive Tim Boyle pledged $1.5 million toward the project.

According to reports in the Portland Tribune, the facility was supposed to open by Thanksgiving 2018 but cleanup costs pushed the budget up to $3.5 million. Portland and Multnomah County later agreed to pay $1 million of the operating costs of the project.

Prosper Portland (the City) which owns the land, leases it to the Office of Management and Finance. Oregon Harbor of Hope subleases it from them on an initial five-year lease.

The operator is Transition Projects Inc., which manages seven shelters that the Joint Office on Homeless Services have approved.

The structure cost $400,000, the soil remediation more, which Mazziotti calls "an expense we didn't anticipate." Oregon DEQ has given Harbor of Hope a loan which they can pay pack for the work. Mazziotti says many of the players involved are working pro bono or for cut rate fees because they want to help. He has "zero clout" now with Prosper Portland. "It's a different organization than when I was running it (the Portland Development Commission). I had a budget of $350 million and 200 employees. Now it's less than $75 million and what, 80 employees? A different size, a different age."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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