A dusty parking lot in the shadow of Interstate 5 has been given a new name by Portland's unhoused population: home.
The unprecedented public health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus catalyzed creation of the outpost at Southeast Water Avenue and Main Street — just the first of three temporary outdoor shelters planned by Portland and Multnomah County officials.
So far, residents are giving the spot top marks.
"There's food, water, a lot of resources and donations," said a resident with the nickname CIS. "When something riles up, there's someone to chill it back down. And all your stuff, it's not going to get stolen."
"I've never ever got housing before. This gives other people a chance to not camp in front of businesses," said an occupant who asked not to be named. "It's a community. We have a vote, we have a say."
Separated from the public by a double line of chain-link fencing, about 20 tents have been pitched on wood pallets since the camp opened less than a week ago, with scattered heat lamps, hand-washing stations and a half-dozen portable toilets set up near the check-in desk. Oregon Harbor of Hope will be lending use of its mobile shower truck.
It's not private. A bird's eye view is available to anyone walking on Madison Street toward the Hawthorne Bridge. And though the site is designated for LGBTQ+ people, officials say all three camps will prioritize older folks, people with disabilities and people identifying as female.
Only those approved to live inside may enter, but during a visit to the perimeter on Monday, April 20, plenty of residents were ducking out to smoke or venturing forth with bags of recyclables hoisted over their shoulders.
Raven Drake explained that she left Indiana and moved here in December because of discriminatory laws passed against her gender identity. Now the former Navy medic is helping coordinate health protocols at the site, though she is still living in a tent alongside I-5.
"I'm quite healthy. I would not want to take a spot that would otherwise go to someone who would really benefit," said Drake. "It's a lot more safe for them here than it is out on the street."
It was quieter across the road, where another 36-person-capacity campsite for people of color has had its opening delayed until Tuesday "at the earliest." County officials have also revised plans for the third, 33-person camp in Old Town. It has no firm opening date.
The project, though under the auspices of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, is entirely funded by the city of Portland, with start-up costs priced at $214,097 and ongoing support for all three sites expected at $155,488 monthly. A more traditional shelter, such as the Navigation Center, costs about $90,000 to $100,000 to run per month. Mayor Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty are said to be the key backers of the temporoary outdoor shelters at City Hall.
Marcus Williams, 61, heard news of the camp and arrived in his car, but was told by staff he would have to come back tomorrow when the POC camp opened. He says the project needs to be a springboard for access to jobs and housing.
"If they're just putting us here to sleep, I don't think it works," he said. "But if they're putting us here to get us lined up for resources, I think this is a great idea."
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