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Commissioner tells of family member who died while homeless in Portland. 'We have to do something different'

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - The yard of a home next to the Sears Armory in Southwest Portland neighbors the parking lot where the city plans to establish a Safe Rest Village. As the federal government reviews the city of Portland's plans to use a Southwest Portland parking lot as a Safe Rest Village, city staff say they don't anticipate that will prevent the homeless shelter from opening.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency is evaluating whether a temporary shelter complies with the deed restriction at the Sgt. Jerome Sears Army Reserve building in Multnomah Village. The site is currently used for equipment storage and police training and was given to the city for use as an emergency management center.

"This question has been raised with our federal partners and we have not heard that they have any concerns," Chariti Montez, who works on the Safe Rest Village team in Commissioner Dan Ryan's office, said during a virtual forum with the Multnomah Neighborhood Association on Jan. 27.

Staff in Commissioner Ryan's office said the plan is to set up 30 to 40 pods akin to tiny homes in the armory parking lot, with onsite restrooms, laundry and showers. A timeline for the outdoor shelter has yet to be disclosed and the city hasn't specified how long the temporary shelter would operate.

Ryan said the proposed Safe Rest Village is likely to be managed by Helping Hands, the same nonprofit organization that manages the city's Bybee Lakes Hope Center shelter.

Prior to the forum, the Multnomah Neighborhood Association asked that the city halt plans to open an outdoor shelter in the area and instead divert any funds from the project to Bybee Lakes Hope Center.

That's unlikely to happen.

Alan Evans, founder of Helping Hands, said he brings decades of lived experience. Evans was homeless for 27 years, including a four-month stint under the Burnside Bridge.

"One thing Helping Hands brings to the table is that experience. We look at this problem from the bottom up, not the top down," Evans told Southwest Portlanders.

He explained the organization's operations and data-driven management approach.

"We're the largest data-driven trauma-informed homeless management program in the nation, and we're grateful for that," Evans said.

SCREENSHOT - Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan is rolling out a plan for Safe Rest Village sites that offer the city's homeless residents sleeping pods similar to a tiny home.While some of the forum's attendees called Evans and Helping Hands a "bright spot" in the plans for an outdoor village, it wasn't enough to win over skeptical neighbors.

Residents who live next to the armory have complained since November that Ryan's office did little to no community outreach or public engagement about the plans. The city commissioner's office hasn't been able to keep up with or respond to the mass influx of questions from residents who live near the property. Moreover, the city hasn't provided a firm timeline for when the sites will launch, saying permits, materials and other site prep is needed. Ryan's office had initially hoped to get some of the Safe Rest sites up and running this winter.

"Dan Ryan's team said they want buy-in from neighbors, but they haven't done anything to reach out to neighbors," Kylie Mendonca, a neighbor of the Sears Armory, said. Mendonca and others said Ryan's team has been unresponsive to phone calls and emails, and there's been no meaningful process for public input. "It's unpopular to be opposed to this particular solution, but the fact is, this is shockingly undemocratic."

Frank Rudloff chairs the Multnomah Neighborhood Association's land use committee and can see the armory parking lot from his house.

"How are they going to pay me for my (property value) loss?" Rudloff asked rhetorically during a phone interview. "How can we expect you to treat the residents of the Safe Rest Village with respect in all the ways you've outlined, when you don't treat your constituents in that manner?"

The Multnomah Neighborhood Association made a formal request for a conditional use review of the proposed shelter, but city officials told Pamplin Media Group a land use review isn't necessary because the shelter will be temporary.

Multnomah residents said they want guarantees of safeguards put in place to prevent unsanctioned camping around the perimeter of the site. They also want to make sure impacts like noise, lights and privacy screening will be addressed.

The neighborhood association forum marked the first time Ryan's staff met with residents since the Sears Armory was announced as a future homeless shelter.

The commissioner kicked off his presentation with an emotional, personal account of his older brother, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and battled addiction and homelessness before his death.SCREENSHOT - Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan meets with residents in Southwest Portland's Multnomah neighborhood during a virtual forum Jan. 27.

"For me, it definitely came from a lived experience," Ryan said, touching on why he's leading the effort to establish half a dozen Safe Rest Villages in Portland.

"I remember when he stopped seeing therapists, stopped going to 12-step meetings and it wasn't that long after when his life started to unravel," Ryan said during the virtual meeting. He said his brother lost his job, lost his marriage and ended up on the streets of Portland.

"He was found in a public restroom, with a bottle of vodka, the clothes on his back, a bus pass and 54 cents," Ryan recalled. "During that time, I learned a lot about what services we had. It was really a motivation to know we have to do something different. You have to challenge the status quo."

Ryan said the goal with Safe Rest Villages is to give unhoused Portlanders a chance to transition off the streets in a way that works.

Each site would offer access to basic hygiene, as well as a shared kitchenette and wraparound services like behavioral health management, with round-the-clock site monitoring.

"Our city's in a lot of trouble right now. We all know that," Ryan told residents. "It's important that we remember that as we, as I like to say right now, dig out of this ditch and move forward."

The commissioner noted the city and Multnomah County poured $38 million into expanding homeless services and shelter beds back in November.

The Portland Police Bureau currently uses the site for training exercises. Ryan said those would move to a new location, but other agencies would likely continue using the site. Neighbors say that doesn't bode well for future Safe Rest Villagers, noting a constant influx of heavy equipment and loud trucks at the armory parking lot.

The Sears Armory site is one of three locations announced by Commissioner Ryan's office and one of six planned Safe Rest Villages. Pushback over the Southwest Portland site isn't unique.

Another site in North Portland that formerly housed Whitaker Columbia Middle School was rejected by Portland Public Schools board members in January for potential use as a Safe Rest spot.

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