FONT & AUDIO
Overlook Neighborhood Association looks to exclude homeless from membership
In something of a trend of Portland neighborhood associations taking a position on homelessness, North Portland's Overlook Neighborhood Association is looking to amend its bylaws to exclude homeless people from participating in some of the organization's activities.
Proposed amendments were posted on its website on Tuesday, Aug. 8, which will be voted on at it's next board meeting at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at Trillium Charter School, 5420 N. Interstate Ave.
The revision would require residents to "provide a legal home address" to qualify for membership. It also states that people living in a "city-sanctioned and permitted houseless village" could qualify.
"You should have a legal address," says Chris Trejbal, chairman of the Overlook Neighborhood Association. "If you're an undocumented immigrant and you rent here you're welcome on the board, but if you happen to plop down on a city park bench for the night, that's not sufficient to say you have a commitment to Overlook. So, in some sense, yes, we're going to exclude some people, and it's those without an address."
However, the city says that neighborhood association membership is open to anyone, including homeless people.
"Neighborhood associations are not designed for just those of us who own homes. We need to be much more inclusive about how we approach all the problems in this city," says Dave Austin, interim ONI director and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly's chief of staff.
Ongoing battle with Hazelnut Grove
The neighborhood association has had ongoing issues since the establishment of the Hazelnut Grove encampment along North Greeley Avenue in 2015, and the fire was stoked further for Overlook when the city and county worked with the Kenton neighborhood for months, including pledging only going forth with community buy in before establishing a tiny-home village for homeless women there. Some Overlook neighbors saw that as unfair, since they didn't have that process for Hazelnut Grove.
"In the meantime, we've seen two new locations open up around North Portland and Overlook," Trejbal says, referring to the new Right 2 Dream Too site in the Rose Quarter, and the Kenton village. "We're looking for something akin to the Kenton model. We think that's a good model … Hazelnut Grove used to be a priority."
Evolving from tents initially, the Grove now has tiny homes where 19 people live and functions as a nonprofit organization. Without a formal agreement from the city, it sits on land owned by the city of Portland.
There's no service provider on site, and some residents there have said they don't plan on leaving anytime in the near future.
However, it does operate on a self-governing model and they follow a code of conduct. The structures on the land have also steadily improved from haggard wooden shacks to more well-designed tiny homes.
The move is a setback for ongoing mediation efforts between the two groups that were facilitated by the Office of Neighborhood Involvement through Resolutions Northwest.
Hazelnut Grove and Overlook have been working to hammer out a Good Neighborhood agreement, having had four mediation meetings in recent months and another being held Thursday, Aug. 10.
The arrangement came following a visit by Mayor Ted Wheeler to a neighborhood association meeting in the spring.
At that time, Wheeler told the neighborhood that they were a neighborhood divided.
Brian Hoop, a program manager at the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, says a similar issue to Overlook's bylaw proposal came up last year, when there were hundreds of campers on the Springwater Corridor Trail in Southeast Portland. In that instance, they worked with the Lents Neighborhood Association.
"Our standards are pretty clear that anyone who lives or owns a property within a neighborhood has a right to be a member, and that would include homeless people," Hoop says. "If meeting participants are asked for address verification, and they have none, we can work with Overlook's leadership to provide a simple form for individuals to indicate where in the neighborhood they are currently living."
Neighborhood associations function as independent nonprofit organizations, but are guided by the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement. ONI standards for neighborhood associations say that they can't discriminate against individuals on the basis of income, and that membership is open to any person who lives within the bounds of a neighborhood association.
"There's too much division in this country right now and as Portlanders, we all need to work together to solve the issues around homelessness and exclusion doesn't help things," Austin says.
Vahid Brown, co-founder of the Village Coalition and who helped establish Hazelnut Grove, called the neighborhood move "utterly disappointing."
A long-time homeless advocate, he's also the housing policy coordinator for Clackamas County.
"It's discriminatory. It's outrageous. This is an act to explicitly exclude people who are very low income and can't afford housing in their neighborhood from participating in the neighborhood," he says.
Village Coalition was formed following on the heels of Hazelnut Grove and worked with city officials to establish the Kenton tiny home village, which has been looked at as a success.
Future still unclear
It's still unclear how the long-term future of Hazelnut Grove will pan out, but the city is looking toward evolving it to a model like Dignity Village.
Wheeler admitted at the springtime Overlook meeting that the city had not treated them fairly in the past.
"As far as I can tell, the city just walked away," Wheeler said at that time. He also warned that moving the camp could be long and difficult, at that time pointing at the years-long battle of moving the Right 2 Dream Too tent encampment from Old Town Chinatown.
"I feel that the city has, as Mayor Wheeler said, treated Overlook shabbily throughout this process," Trejbal says. "This Good Neighborhood Agreement process, while I welcome the opportunity to develop the agreement because it will improve relationships with neighbors and Hazelnut Grove, it's just a proxy for dealing with the situation, and the city is still uncommitted to dealing with a fundamentally dangerous situation of a village springing up where there's no code enforcements and it's in a wildfire zone."
As for the proposed bylaw amendment, Trejbal interprets it as a legal issue.
"I wouldn't portray it as excluding homeless people. It's excluding people who aren't legal residents of the neighborhood," he says.
But Brown, who has spoken at Overlook neighborhood meetings about Hazlenut Grove a number of times in an attempt to help parties achieve understanding, still sees the move differently.
He volunteered to conduct the federally mandated Point-in-Time Count for that area, which documents homeless people. Brown says that may people who lose their housing tend to stay in the neighborhood they're familiar with.
"The people who Overlook is trying to exclude … they are Overlook residents. They are Overlook neighbors. It's just unvarnished economic discrimination. These folks should have a voice," Brown says.
Update: The city has threatened to stop regonizing the Overlook Neighborhood Association if they vote to enact a bylaw revision that would exclude homeless people from membership.
Additionally the neighborhood meeting changed location, previously scheduled at the Lucky Labrador Taproom to a bigger location: the Trillium Charter School, 5420 N. Interstate Ave.
The neighborhood received a letter from the Office of Neighborhood Involvement and posted it on their website.
"If the OverlookNeighborhood Association were to move forward with adoption of such a restriction, ONI would have to consider exercising its authority to suspend, and perhaps eventually terminate, the Overlook Neighborhood Association's benefits of formal recognition. This is not a decision that ONI would lightly make," the letter reads.
The board plans to convene prior to the 6:30 p.m. meeting to discuss the letter.
If the city takes those steps, Overlook would no longer be recognized as part of the city's 95-neighborhood association system, or receive support from the North Portland Neighborhood Services coalition.
Trejbal didn't seem worried about that, except that boardmembers receive insurance through the city and coalition.
He says however that they could replace it with insurance from the private market if they wanted.
The revisions would have to have two-thirds of the neighborhood association's vote to be adopted.
Trejbal says that the amendment wasn't targeted to Hazelnut Grove.
"We were looking for clarity about who can be a member of the Overlook Neighborhood Association," he says. "I think it's unfortunate that ONI didn't engage with us for a conversation before issuing threats."