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Multnomah Neighborhood Association asks if shelter is in line with property deed

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - The Sears Armory parking lot in Southwest Portland, shown here from the fenceline of a neighboring house, is slated to host a Safe Rest Village for homeless Portlanders.Southwest Portland residents are asking the city for a closer examination of a proposed Safe Rest Village site at the Sgt. Jerome Sears Army Reserve Center along Southwest Capitol Highway.

Following a membership meeting and vote on Dec. 14, the Multnomah Neighborhood Association will send a request to the city of Portland for a Type III Conditional Land Use Review of the homeless village planned for the Sears Armory parking lot near Multnomah Village.

Since that meeting, a legal complaint has also been filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court by Patrick Cashman, asking the courts to intervene and force a land use review of the project. Cashman filed the request for injunctive relief on Dec. 24.

The westside site is one of six projects slated to be set up throughout the city. As planned, Safe Rest Villages will be managed, transitional homeless shelters offering basic onsite amenities like restrooms, showers, laundry and other wraparound services, according to the city.

Employees in City Commissioner Dan Ryan's office told the Multnomah Neighborhood Association leadership that the Sears Armory site likely would house around 40 outdoor pods roughly the size of small sheds, with a maximum of two people per pod. A 25-foot buffer around the perimeter reportedly will be included. Early plans indicated there could be up to 60 pods at the Southwest Portland site.

The Sears Armory property is deed-restricted for emergency management use and currently is zoned for general employment, with an emphasis on industrial use.

Some neighbors say the city's plan presents a potential conflict with that deed restriction, as well as city planning code and due process.

"In this case the city is not following their own code for the placement of Safe Rest Villages," James Peterson told the Multnomah Neighborhood Association board. Peterson brought the issue before the neighborhood group and requested a vote.

Whether the city is required to provide a land use review of its Safe Rest sites is unclear. In April, the Portland City Council approved a Shelter-to-Housing Continuum that alters city code requirements to allow for a broader range of shelter and housing options.

Ryan's office did not provide a response to the request for a land use review.

Another motion that came before the neighborhood association from Karyn Munford suggested the Neighborhood Association request that the city fully fund the Sears Armory as an emergency operations and preparedness center, citing two ordinances from nearly a decade ago, when the property was turned over to the city. The site initially was pitched as a facility that could serve residents west of the river who may not be reachable or easily served during a disaster, Munford said. The city's emergency equipment is stored east of the Willamette River. Portland's bridges could be compromised in the event of a disaster such as an earthquake.

Munford said communities "could be in harm's way and potentially become homeless after a disaster," without a fully functioning emergency operations center.

But the city wants to use the site to serve Portlanders who already are homeless.

SCREENSHOT - Moses Ross, chair of the board of directors for the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, opens a Dec. 14 virtual meeting that included about 100 participants.Moses Ross, chair of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, said the request for a land use review is "not an indictment of the project."

"This was a forum to allow people to express themselves and blow off steam about this, as well as allow the neighborhood association to establish a perspective on this," Ross said of the Dec. 14 neighborhood video conference meeting, in which nearly 100 people logged in. Ross cautioned attendees that "we don't know all the facts yet," about how the site will be managed.

The Safe Rest Villages are a core piece of the city's and county's plans to provide more available shelter for the thousands of unhoused Portland residents. The latest report from the county and Street Roots — a weekly news outlet and homeless advocacy organization — indicates at least 126 people died in 2020 while living unhoused.

As the city of Portland works with Multnomah County via the Joint Office of Homeless Services to establish new shelter solutions, both governments are under pressure to improve past practices. A 2017 audit noted the joint office found success in transitioning people off the streets and into shelter or housing, but the office relied on a limited number of homeless service providers and didn't thoroughly track or evaluate how funding was used. A lack of critical data created inefficiencies and made it hard to measure the success of past city and county efforts.

"While we don't doubt that current funds are going to help people in need, the question remains: are we helping those most in need and doing it in the most efficient way with the most effective outcomes possible? To know that (the joint office) needs to move quickly to become the data-driven system they strive to be," a 2017 Multnomah County Auditor's letter to city and county officials stated.

The audit also criticized the joint office for a lack of communication with stakeholders and the public about how well the systems were performing. Portlanders' latest frustrations hint at a lack of improvement on that front.

Not feeling heard

Since the announcement of the forthcoming Safe Rest Villages in November, residents have responded with mixed reactions.

Many in Multnomah Village said they felt ignored and overlooked by the city, noting they should've been given the chance to provide input and ask questions during the planning process. Some neighbors said they feared a repeat of the conditions at the Sears Armory the last time the site was used as an indoor shelter in late 2015 and early 2016.

The armory wasn't on the city's recent list of proposed Safe Rest sites being studied and nearby residents didn't know a shelter site was being planned there. Residents who live next to the property said they weren't notified. The neighborhood association, a neighboring private school and nearby businesses were told about the Safe Rest Village plan immediately before the news was released to the general public.

A month later, no community meetings or listening sessions had been planned by the city to address concerns or to explain how each site will be operated and managed. That's created a breakdown of community trust, neighbors say.

Leadership at West Hills Christian School, which is a short walk from the Sears Armory, said schools staff have observed unsanctioned camping, litter, theft, fires and drug use around the perimeters of other managed outdoor shelter sites in the city.

"At this point, we're not confident in the Safe Rest Village staff, in Commissioner Ryan, in the city of Portland's ability to appropriately address those problems," said Traci Vogt, dean of students at West Hills Christian School.

Most who spoke at the December neighborhood meeting aired concerns about a potential uptick in noise, disruptions and crime related to the Safe Rest Village. The complaints about encampments around Portland often stem from root causes like mental illness or addiction. Multnomah residents say they don't yet know what the city's plans are to help Safe Rest Village residents address underlying issues.

Data shows no crime uptick in past years

Portland Police Bureau data spanning back to the time the armory was previously used as a shelter shows no uptick in reported crimes there while the shelter was active. Calls to the area were higher in the months preceding the shelter's opening. Call volume saw a small uptick in March 2016 after the shelter was closed, mainly for property crimes, but the following month saw the lowest overall call volume in a year. Moreover, it's unclear whether any of those police calls involved unhoused residents. At the time, PPB didn't collect data during arrests on whether suspects were homeless. A recent report by investigative journalism outlet Reveal showed homeless Portlanders are arrested and incarcerated at substantially higher rates, even though they make up roughly 2% of the city's population.

Some neighborhood residents, including former Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, suggested the Multnomah Neighborhood group embrace the project and try to work with the city on "good neighbor agreements."

Fritz acknowledged the previous temporary shelter at the Sears Armory, but said the Safe Rest Village will be "a different kind of concept where people will have light and heat and services and a place to be."

"As we sit in our comfortable homes … on a night like today, where people are going to be living outside in the snow, they're our neighbors, too. Many of them became homeless in our area," she said.

Others also urged empathy.

"Everybody is somebody's baby," area resident Beth Brashear said. "Even as we are wanting to protect mothers, there are other mothers, some of which I work with, whose children are living on the streets." Brashear said this is an opportunity to help connect homeless residents with critical services that could help them get off the streets, but noted the need for "clear boundaries" at the Safe Rest Village.

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