Commissioner cites misconceptions, says public outreach will highlight operations of Southwest Portland site

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The parking lot of the Sears Armory in Southwest Portland was announced as one of the sites for a forthcoming Safe Rest Village. The property is currently used for emergency responder training.The phrase, "Yes In My Back Yard" has a palpable sting for Southwest Portland residents near Multnomah Village.

In November, City Commissioner Dan Ryan's office released plans to put a Safe Rest Village in the parking lot of the Sgt. Jerome Sears Army Reserve building. The temporary homeless shelter has yet to come to fruition, but the project has already soured neighbors.

For one woman, whose property abuts the Sears Armory, a chain link fence and 15 feet are the only buffer between her bedroom walls and the armory parking lot. She's anxiously awaiting layout logistics for the temporary shelter, which could see the addition of up to 60 outdoor living pods.

"Usually there are public hearings for these things," said the homeowner, who declined to give her name due to privacy concerns. She's lived in the neighborhood since 2003 and remembers the last time the city used the old armory site as a temporary homeless shelter in 2015.

"We saw an increase in needles around the neighborhood and fighting, but this feels worse," she said.

The neighbor said she found out about the latest Safe Rest Village plans not from the city, but from news outlets and her neighbors. That left her feeling blindsided.

PMG PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - The Sears Armory parking lot in Southwest Portland, shown here from the fenceline of a neighboring house, is slated to host a Safe Rest Village for homeless Portlanders, with up to 60 sleeping pods."They don't consider us stakeholders," the woman said of city leaders.

Toward the back of the armory property, a short unpaved path leads to the West Hills Christian School, a small, private K-8 campus.

"The city did not provide any notice or time for us to prepare for this unexpected and unprecedented development," West Hills Principal Doug Loiler said in a media statement released by the school.

School leaders said on Dec. 1 they first learned about the proposed Sears Armory shelter via media outlets the week prior.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The 60 planned sleeping pods in the parking lot of the Sears Armory will share space with Southwest Capitol Highway project equipment and supplies until work is completed in December 2022,, Portland Tribune - News Residents near the Sears Armory in Southwest Portland have questions about using it for a Safe Rest Village. Ryan: Safe Rest Villages are emergency managementThe Multnomah Neighborhood Association also confirmed it was notified about plans "an hour before" the city announcement was made.

West Hills noted the city appears to be moving forward "without considering impacts" to the school and its young students, or the neighborhood.

"Our request is that the commissioner and city ensure there is time and opportunity for the necessary due diligence to be completed prior to moving forward," Loiler added.

Commissioner Ryan said during a Dec. 8 town hall meeting with county and state leaders that no one who is prohibited from living near a school will be allowed to stay at the Sears Armory site.

"Safety of the shelter residents is also a priority concern for us," Chariti Montez, a staffer in Ryan's office, noted.

School leaders and neighbors of the property want a public review of the site's suitability for use as an outdoor shelter village, with a process for community input before plans move forward, but that's unlikely to happen.

"We do not engage the community on whether a site is viable. That is a decision our team makes," said Bryan Aptekar, a communications liaison for the Safe Rest Villages initiative in Ryan's office. Staff in the commissioner's office said there will be a community engagement process to "address concerns, perceptions and misconceptions about what Safe Rest Villages will and won't be and to discuss how the village can best become part of the community."

The Safe Rest Village plan has already been supported by the Portland City Council and gotten funding via the city's share of American Rescue Plan Act dollars. Representatives with Ryan's office noted there are no plans for the SRV initiative to go before the Portland City Council in the near future.

In April, the council approved a Shelter to Housing Continuum, which modified city zoning codes to allow for the establishment of outdoor villages.

Ryan's team cited "a long process of doing due diligence, to determine if a site is viable," and noted the Sears Armory was among hundreds of properties around the city that were considered, most of which were not viable.

"No one wants to be in the place we are in and together we must all lean in and take action," Commissioner Ryan said via email to the Connection. "The city recently secured investments to address this emergency, and now we need partners and community to be part of the solution. The current conditions for our houseless neighbors are grim. A little shared sacrifice and commitment is needed from the heart and soul of each Portlander."

In the few short weeks since the shelter site has been announced for Southwest Portland, residents have created their own Safe Rest Village website, criticizing the plan and accusing city leaders of pushing "conspicuous drug use" and "verified reports of violence" into residential areas.

Neighbors lamented the lack of notice or outreach prior to plans being announced. A list of surplus properties under consideration for SRVs released in July didn't include the Sears Armory. Some have questioned why the city isn't looking more closely at industrial areas or vacant commercial properties.

According to the city, each Safe Rest Village site will have security fencing and be managed by a contracted nonprofit organization that provides a host of services to village residents.

Not everyone opposes the project.

"I've got residents that live in the neighborhood also that are asking, 'What can I do to support this? What can I do to help?'" Multnomah Neighborhood Association chair Moses Ross said. The neighborhood group is trying to facilitate community meetings via Zoom with county leaders and staff from Commissioner Ryan's office. No meeting dates have been set yet.

"The city's trying to come up with solutions here to a very real problem we need to address," Ross said. "If it's our civic responsibility to step up and embrace our neighbors like this, then we do need to have a process for a say so in this, certainly."

Emergency management site used as shelter in 2015

The pushback has been framed by some as peak NIMBYism from a community that has been fairly insulated from the reality of Portland's homeless crisis. Commissioner Ryan said there's a misconception that Safe Rest Villages will mirror the myriad unmanaged homeless camps throughout Portland.

Some of the community opposition comes from mistrust of the city that bubbled over from late 2015 and early 2016, when the armory was last used as a shelter. At that time, shelter beds were indoors.

"Last time, we were up all night for six months with the sirens, shouting and visible drug use," said Lisa, who lives nearby with her husband, David. The couple agreed to speak only if their last names were withheld. "The mayor was inaccessible. There was no security. It was so poorly managed last time."

The couple fears a lack of resources and support services for the number of people who might relocate to the site.

The armory in Multnomah Village is a deed-restricted property, limited to emergency management operations and training. Currently, it's used for law enforcement and emergency responder training and most visibly, as a storage lot for construction equipment related to the ongoing Capitol Highway Improvement Project.

Ross recalled that sometime in the last decade, a group was formed with the goal of converting the armory into an affordable housing site, but the property deed restrictions wouldn't allow it.

Commissioner Ryan's office posits the city's growing homeless population is a crisis, and the Shelter to Housing Continuum is a form of emergency management.

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