Development pushes out Portland's 'C3PO' homeless villages
As Portland scrambles to build six new outdoor shelters for homeless neighbors by year's end, a separate struggle to rehome its existing villages is happening largely outside the public's eye.
The relocation of two of the three villages — collectively dubbed Creating Conscious Communities with People Outside, or C3PO — comes as Portland's development commission preps the three-block parcel for an industrial office builder.
Queer Affinity Village is facing a Thursday, Sept. 30, deadline to vacate the dusty intersection along Southeast Water Avenue and Main Street. Some 35 residents living next door, in the village designated for Black, Indigenous and people of color, packed up and moved to a vacant lot in the Lloyd District over the July 23 weekend.
Officials say the expiration date set by the commission, now called Prosper Portland, is flexible — though exactly where QA Village will move remains a mystery.
"The timing of a move from the current site will follow along with the effort to find a new site," said Denis Theriault, a spokesman for the city-county Joint Office of Homeless Services. "The original lots hosting C3PO, owned by Prosper Portland, were always planned as temporary."
The land-rush underscores the challenge confronting Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan, the city's liaison to the Joint Office, who has vowed to build six Safe Rest Villages this year using $20 million in federal relief funds, likely on a similar model to the city's other nonprofit-operated villages, such as Kenton and St. Johns villages.
Whether that effort will stay on schedule is another matter. A presentation Ryan made to the Council showed construction beginning as soon as this month and stretching into the winter. A community engagement team was supposed to be set up in August or September, but Ryan's policy director didn't respond when asked whether that happened.
One thing is clear: to C3PO's residents, the villages aren't just a safe harbor — they're home.
"I'm lucky," says Dale, a Benson High grad who spent six years camping in the Sunnyside and Hollywood neighborhoods before moving to the 24-hour, low-barrier shelter in 2020. "There isn't the stress in here like from being out in the street and in tents along the freeway."
The 65-year-old, with a weathered face and kind eyes, worked on a Southwest Washington ferry before losing his footing in society. Now he lives in a prefabricated pod with windows, lighting, electricity, a bunk bed — and a lock. Friends and acquaintances can't be invited inside the walls, but pets and coupled residents are allowed.
Dale says the village provides a level of trust not available to those living on the streets.
"People leave their phones in the little common area and they're there the next day," he said. "Some of these other places, you turn around 30 seconds later and it's gone."
As the relocation deadline looms, officials are confident they can muster the same creative energy that transformed a trio of privacy-free tent campgrounds into miniature cities, replete with geodesic domes, yoga classes and flower gardens.
The mission changed in the depths of winter, as the long-haul nature of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, as well as the need for weatherization.
Combined operating costs have risen from $155,488 per month to $175,000 monthly, or $2.1 million per year, as administration of C3PO switched from the service provider JOIN to Portland's original "Star Wars" themed rest station, Right 2 Dream Too, or R2DToo, last September.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury solidified her support for C3PO with a one-time infusion of $1.5 million in federal American Rescue Act funds in this year's fiscal budget. Portland City Council has allocated $3 million to support the sites.
Budget documents show a majority of the operating expenses, some $623,000 over 180 days, go toward paid staff, of which about half also are C3PO villagers. Much of the rest of the money goes to payroll benefits, insurance, maintenance, food and cleaning supplies. Salaries for outside staff range from $25.35 to $23.35 per hour, while villagers make $20.35 hourly.
Grant Swanson, a key R2DToo organizer, said no one on his board has taken a penny for their administrative work, which is partly why the shoestring nonprofit is looking to hand over management to a yet-to-be named partner by Oct. 1.
"We're plugging along," Swanson said. "Other than a few small donations from elected officials' offices, we haven't gotten any money from the city for operations of R2DToo proper since fiscal year '18."
More empathy, less judgement
Caring for the medical needs of those experiencing homelessness is a challenge at the best of times.
C3PO, however, has proven to be a COVID success story, with only one confirmed case of the virus across the three villages, as well as one potential exposure.
Vaccination rates range between 65% and 70% for the villages, according to Katie Cox, executive director of The Equi Institute, which runs C3PO's grant-funded medical program.
"Masking up and social distancing and sanitizing have kept us safe through this experience, which is pretty incredible," she said.
Cox oversees a team of three community health workers and three volunteer nurses — ensuring that a health worker is stationed at the villages roughly four or five days each week — and a nurse case manager who handles complex wound care.
Without advocates, people from marginalized communities often receive rushed or substandard treatment, the executive director said, recalling how one villager's stitches repeatedly reopened after doctors failed to mitigate the wound or graft the skin.
"Houseless folks are consistently mistreated and discriminated against in larger health systems," Cox said. "Being on the streets is a traumatic experience. If people would approach the housing crisis with more empathy and less judgement, I think it would make a huge difference."
Residents currently shower in mobile trailers, and are provided cards for an off-site laundry service. The city plans to build permanent bathroom and laundry facilities, as well as kitchenettes, once long-term locations are found for each village.
No substitute for housing
C3PO hasn't been free from tragedy or missteps.
At least one villager has died. Official records show the death of a resident in July was not recorded as a suicide or as drug-related.
"It remains painfully clear that homelessness continues to take a terrible toll on everyone who experiences it, and it tragically shortens lives," said Theriault, the joint office spokesman. "And that's why we have worked to not just preserve shelter beds during COVID, but add more, with spaces like C3PO."
Theriault added that the county plans to increase rental assistance programs and add "hundreds more shelter beds this coming year" using money from the feds and the Supportive Housing Services marginal income tax on high earners OK'd by metro voters last year.
Rats pose another issue at all three villages, stymying efforts to grow food on site, though Theriault says each location "independently opted out" of using pest control services after trying it for several months.
Chain-link fences created an atmosphere devoid of privacy at first.
The Equi Institute founding director Dana Lynn Louis raised $10,000 from private donors to screen off two villages with inward facing murals painted on tarps. (The relocated BIPOC village is covered by a wooden fence that Louis hopes to paint to prevent further tagging.)
Louis cautions that rats are common for any Portlander with a chicken coop, and says every community experiences growing pains, whether it's a shiny condo building or a homeless village.
"Living together isn't easy," she said. "By giving people this dignity, space and time, people's ability to think about the possibilities is amped up… Art is a part of that. Art is often seen as a luxury, but it's not."
Another unintended stumble came after the city purchased eight-foot by eight-foot shelters for each resident in late November for a price of $6,000 each, KGW reported at the time.
Made out of fiberglass reinforced plastic with a welded aluminum floor and frame, the tiny homes turned into "tiny ovens," according to Cox, when the unseasonable summer hit. R2DToo purchased each unit a mounted air conditioner, but they arrived only after the record-breaking heat, due to supply chain problems.
Brandon Bills, marketing director for the Pallet Shelter, confirms that the Everett, Washington-based company offers pods with heating and cooling built-in for about $7,500 each, but notes that the utilitarian options are an intentional decision.
"This model is intended to provide the most value for the many," he said.
The pods are designed to last for at least 10 years while exposed to elements, but the shelters are "absolutely not an alternative to permanent housing," he said.
Industrial offices planned
Whether it's 10 months or 10 years, Portlanders may want C3PO to stick around — as long as the need persists.
The newly relocated BIPOC Village sits on a former parking lot at 84 N.E. Weidler St., separated from the Moda Center only by Interstate 5. Its current lease runs until June 30, 2024, according to Prosper Portland, while the non-identity specific village can remain on another former parking lot owned by the development commission at Northwest Sixth Avenue and Glisan Street until 2023.
"All fees associated with this permit have been waived," said Prosper Portland project manager Berk Nelson.
Kate Merrill, executive director at the Central Eastside Industrial Council, said that even after City Hall approved the Shelter to Housing Continuum that legalized many forms of alternate shelter, it would have been difficult for the villages to persist on land zoned for industrial uses.
Merrill said her organization requested a good neighbor agreement with the villages but was rebuffed.
"We are in a housing crisis, so these outdoor shelters are a good alternative," Merrill said. "We just really feel that the city needs to make sure that these shelters have some sort of community partnership with the businesses and the residents around them."
According to Prosper Portland, the three vacant blocks near the Eastbank Commerce Center eventually will be transformed into the "Workshop Blocks," with an inclusive tech cluster featuring a ground-floor workforce training and business incubation center to be built first. Groundbreaking tentatively is scheduled for the first half of 2022.
Beam Development principal Jonathan Maslin pumps the brakes, somewhat. A memo of understanding grants his company exclusive development rights, but negotiations remain ongoing.
The current plan is to build the tech, creative production and food and beverage clusters out of trendy and eco-friendly mass timber, but Maslin said the rise of remote work has thrown their plans for a loop and may mean the market no longer can support a cadillac of new offices.
Pre-COVID, "We were fairly bullish on the industrial office market. We saw a significant uptick in vacancies in our portfolio … and contractions of space requirements, with quite a few tenants terminating leases or ceasing to exist," he said.
While groundbreaking may not be imminent, the developer emphasizes that Beam wants to move forward with the project and already has lined up one interested confidential tenant.
An uncertain future
Back at the C3PO, villagers are gathering under a giant canvas-covered PVC dome, something like an oversized jungle gym or a Buckminister Fuller vision come to life.
Volunteers from Burners Without Borders, a local Burning Man group, built three structures to provide common spaces, though the relocated village no longer has one, due to city permitting concerns.
The third dome is "chilling" in Molly Harpel's backyard. The co-lead for the Portland chapter of the Burners is exploring the idea of building the villages greenhouses next.
"Anybody who lives in Portland can see how hard this year has been for a lot of people," said Harpel. "We don't plan on moving on until they tell us they don't need us anymore."
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