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First city properties selected for 'Safe Rest Villages' for the homeless seemingly were not checked for flood dangers

ELIZABETH USSHER GROFF - This concrete and asphalt lot - formerly used for a commercial car wash, on S.E. 45th just north of Harney Street - was chosen by the city to be the site of a Safe Rest Village for the homeless. Then, a week later, the plan was abandoned, because its in a city-designated flood plain. After a surprise announcement by the city, on September 30th, that a site at S.E. 45th Avenue and Harney Street in the Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood was one of three spots in the city already chosen for a "Safe Rest Village" for the homeless, neighbors expressed surprise and shock. No one in the area had been consulted or notified; one neighbor's comment was, "It just came out of the blue."

Dozens of opinions began appearing in the media and on social media. A few were in support of the announcement, because Portland neighborhood streets, parking strips, vacant lots and highway edges have seen a proliferation of tents providing shelter for homeless people for many, many months. But many others began expressing other concerns: There were questions about its proximity to Errol Heights Park, and the wetlands just east of the site. Another concern was that homeless tents could start popping up around the Safe Rest Village, because such tents, with trash, drugs, and noise problems, had already been a serious issue in the same area for many months.

With this announcement, which began the rolling out of the "Paving the Pathway from Streets to Stability" city ordinance passed back in June, Bob Sallinger – longtime Conversation Director of the Audubon Society – said in an e-mail that was made public: "When the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability developed rules for siting 'safe rest villages', it was clear that natural areas were to be avoided.

"While this site is not currently zoned as open space, it was purchased by BES [Bureau of Environmental Services] with the intent of using it …as a staging area for restoration, and later as part of the natural area. The selection of this site would appear to violate the intent if not the letter of the rules developed by BPS [Bureau of Planning and Sustainability]."

Then suddenly, three days later, the city itself announced to the media that the site had been discovered to be in a flood zone, and thus was ineligible for such use. In fact, the city's own flood map already showed the site as being in a flood plain. That location, at S.E. 45th and Harney (which is next to next to the Franz Bakery outlet store), was immediately taken off the list for Safe Rest Villages, because city code requires that outdoor shelters cannot be built in flood-hazard areas.

Commissioner Ryan's office revealed yet another concern: The concrete and asphalt lot, formerly used as a car wash, might have some toxic residue. And a few days later, in a Brentwood-Darlington neighborhood association discussion, one older woman said she remembers it being the site of a PGE substation.

So in a press conference, City Commissioner Dan Ryan said, "I am disappointed that the site at S.E. 45th and Harney is no longer viable as a Safe Rest Village. This area of [Southeast] Portland does not currently have any shelter options – inside or outside – and there are a large number of Portlanders living outdoors in the neighborhood, including along the Springwater Trail.

"We were excited to bring services to this under-served community in need. However, now is the time to continue our careful review of Safe Rest Village sites before we finalize agreements, and I'm pleased we identified this problem before spending additional time and resources. We will pick ourselves up, learn from this setback, and move on, as we continue to work hard for housed and unhoused Portlanders." These temporary communities are to be built on city-owned or city-leased sites, and another site mentioned, among many candidates, for such use would displace the community garden on Water Bureau-owned property in Sellwood south of Tacoma Street and east of S.E. 17th.

For more information on the "Safe Rest Villages" project, and all the metrics involved, go online – www.portland.gov/ryan/safe-rest-villages


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