Homeless village's future in question
Hazelnut Grove, a 19-person village of otherwise homeless folks in the Overlook neighborhood of North Portland, faces an uncertain future as some neighbors push to close down the site, while city officials seek to mediate.
Mayor Ted Wheeler spoke at a recent Overlook Neighborhood Association meeting on the conflict, while the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is working to facilitate a Good Neighbor Agreement and mediation with Resolutions Northwest, an agency that specializes in resolving disputes.
"We recognize there's been a kind of longstanding conflict between the two parties and the previous administration didn't work to resolve that before they left office. We're hoping to pick up the pieces," said Jamey Duhamel, City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's policy director. "I don't know what the outcome of that will be. At this point in time we're just working on the process and providing the forums."
The city is setting up a meeting in the next few weeks for Hazelnut Grove residents, Overlook Neighborhood Association leaders and the city to consider the Good Neighbor Agreement.
Some neighbors also wish that, if Hazelnut Grove does continue there, that Overlook be granted the same process that the Kenton neighborhood had recently in establishing a tiny-home village for 14 homeless women. That project required a supportive vote of the neighborhood, and is being done as a partnership between the city, county, a social service agency and a number of other organizations.
Hazelnut Grove formed following protests of homeless sweeps in 2015. Residents initially set up tents but have gradually built simple wooden structures. It operates using a self-governing model and organized as a nonprofit organization.
When Wheeler addressed Overlook residents, he took tough questions about the site. He also polled the audience as to whether they actually wanted the camp to move or not.
When no clear majority was apparent, Wheeler said they are a neighborhood divided.
Wheeler warned that the city has failed to find a way to relocate the Right 2 Dream Too campsite from Old Town-Chinatown, and would likely have trouble moving Hazelnut Grove. But the mayor said he has called for a "full accounting" of city-owned properties and those owned by other jurisdictions such as the Oregon Department of Transportation and TriMet rights-of-way.
"I've also asked private sector people for properties ... whether for tiny home village shelter strategies or permanent affordable housing," he said.
Overlook residents opposed to the camp have repeatedly voiced concerns about the site being in a wildfire and landslide zone.
A senior fire inspector with Portland Fire and Rescue, Michael Silva, has visited the site three times, most recently within the past 90 days. He told the Tribune that the last time he visited, villagers had cleared garbage and brush that might've made the site more of a danger, and that they also had made improvements based on suggestions from earlier visits.
"I understand why citizens would be concerned, especially if they're looking at it from their angle, and they don't know what's going on down there," Silva says.
"When I was there, there was clear earth. They had taken down the vegetation within the encampment and in its perimeter, (so) if you were to take a lighter or throw a cigarette butt, the earth's not going to burn."
During a recent site visit, a Jewish youth group, called Tivnu, was volunteering to deconstruct some of the older decrepit homes to make way for improved tiny dwellings.
An Oregon Department of Geology & Mineral Industries map shows the site is in a landslide zone.
"What the map shows is that landslides are possible in this particular area, but it would take a geotechnical assessment of the site to see what the hazard really is," says Ali Ryan, a spokeswoman for the agency.
It's unclear if the city has conducted an in-depth assessment of the land. "We do need to have some confidence in the geological stability," Wheeler told neighbors.
Hazelnut Grove residents were initially camping higher on the bank, but moved down onto flatter land while the city installed fencing to minimize the impact from potential slides.
Grove residents say that neighbors use the wildfire and landslide arguments to try to flush them out, and maintain they have not seen improvements to the area.
On different pages
Overlook Neighborhood Association President Chris Trejbal has other concerns besides environmental hazards.
"By allowing people to exist outside of legal structure, social laws and policies that the rest of us enjoy, how is that good for them?" Trejbal said. "The idea is to get them on the path of long-term housing ... putting them outside the social structure that everyone else lives in doesn't seem like a path forward."
He and others want a model like the one Kenton has established for a planned village of small structures. That project required a formal vote of support from neighbors, accompanying social services and a Good Neighborhood Agreement to set some terms for behavior.
The city admits that it hasn't been fair to Overlook.
Wheeler apologized to Overlook neighbors about how the city has responded to their concerns. "As far as I can tell, the city just walked away," he said.
Though most in Hazelnut Grove welcome more dialogue, some are wary of any new rules that might rise out of an agreement, and don't wish to relocate. Resident Loki Hamilton told the Tribune the only way she will leave Hazelnut Grove is "in a casket."
Founders and residents created their own code of conduct. Leader Joe Bennie, also one of the grove's founders, says some residents do smoke marijuana at the site but no illegal drugs are allowed. Problematic villagers from the past have been evicted, residents said.
As for replicating the Kenton model, Bennie, who previously lived on the streets and found his way to the grove through the Occupy movement, is skeptical, especially if organizers would require background checks.
"It would never work ... We're done with the city telling us what to do to stay alive," Bennie said. "If the city would come up with something better, we're willing to talk." He said he'll eventually leave the site at some point.
And when it comes to the site needing social service providers, he says, "People need to learn how to be grown-ups on their own. There are camps that need it — this ain't one."